serpentwithfeet Becomes the 'DEACON' of His Own Church of Love

BY Max HeilmanPublished Mar 22, 2021

The repurposing of gospel music defines Josiah Wise's alter ego serpentwithfeet, reconciling his religious upbringing with his sexual identity. To that effect, 2018's soil essentially treated gospel like an avant-garde opera. Bombastic and harrowing, yet sensual and alluring, Wise imbued this album with his classically-trained voice and gospel roots, firmly establishing it as a front-runner for experimental pop and soul. Compared to such a striking debut, the silky R&B flavours of DEACON are definitely more palatable — and that's just how Wise wants it!
Similarly to how a church's deacon strives for order within the organization, Wise's latest effort seeks to balm the effects of a chaotic world with 29 minutes of soothing love songs, including closer "Fellowship," a wholesome ode to Wise's friends. The single spotlights his virtuosic, captivating voice, supported by detailed, multilayered production. Wise retains his musicality while fully embracing R&B sensibilities.
Wise's elaborate vocal runs, unpredictable melodic phrasing and distinct timbre elevate the pristine keyboards and ethereal beat of "Same Size Shoe." He expresses his desire for a soulmate who can fully relate to him as a Black man: "Boy, you got my trust 'cause I'm like you." After the complex emotional rollercoaster of soil, it's genuinely beautiful to hear Wise sing about sharing everything from a favourite chorus to a barber with a significant other.
DEACON essentially takes the "blues" out of rhythm and blues, making it a beacon of light for the intersection of Black and gay love. There's no heartbreak to hold back opener "Hyacinth" from submerging like a bath bomb of glossy guitars and piano in a tub full of heartwarming lines like "He never played football / But look at how he holds me." In the same way, "Amir" rides the butterfly sensation of asking someone on a date into a sunset of throwback '90s R&B production. Wise's rapturous idiosyncrasies effortlessly aggrandize this cut's accessible template.
Clocking in at under half an hour, DEACON does miss out on some opportunities to flesh out certain ideas. This is most obvious on the 40-second a cappella piece "Dawn." The song could've used more time to develop its choirlike arrangement à la Jacob Collier, though it works just fine as an interlude. "Malik" and "Derrick's Beard" do a better job of growing their respective uptempo snap-track and moody piano balladry. Both cuts ooze palpable sultriness, whether it's the former's light-hearted bounce ("Peace to your daddy that made you so fine") or the latter's yearning ambiance ("Come over here / Missing your beard").
The way "Derrick's Beard" maintains interest while centering on two lines is a testament to Wise's approach to arrangement. In a genre that tends to focus on acrobatic singing instead of instrumentation, this album has both in spades. The sub-bass thud, whacking backbeat and miscellaneous chimes found in "Wood Boy" reflect the ecstasy Wise gets lost in with his partner.
Similarly, "Old & Fine" embellishes minimalist beats, spiritual championing and dazzling vocal flourishes with what sounds like a processed bell choir. Even within a hookier context, serpentwithfeet's songwriting remains deeply impressionistic — an evolving canvas on which he can paint with his illustrious melodies. This well-conceived balance greatly benefits the expansive soundscape of reverberant tones and massive drops of "Heart Storm." It provides the perfect backdrop for Wise to duet with British avant-soul singer NAO; their voices compare and contrast naturally, knowing when to take the reins and when to support one another.
DEACON is certainly a less confrontational album than soil, but the album's inviting sound allows Wise's raw talent to shine all the brighter. Under a charmingly simple exterior of love and passion lies powerful depth and expertise. DEACON's memorable songwriting and jovial themes compellingly manifest Wise's affable side.
(Secretly Canadian)

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