Album Review: serpentwithfeet – DEACON

[Secretly Canadian; 2021]

serpentwithfeet is amorphous and ever-evolving, shedding his skin for a new one with each life experience and musical project he’s released. But one thing remains constant – the power of his alluring voice. Trembling, piercing, and above all, provocative, Josiah Wise possesses a voice that can, at once, seduce, frighten, and bring you to tears. 

Wise is no stranger to shedding tears. His 2018 debut full-length release Soil saw the Baltimore-born singer undulate between despair, guilt, and desire-fueled paranoia. serpentwithfeet emerged from the drab depths of Soil an uncanny talent on the rise, but became misconstrued as yet another perpetually sad artist making contemporary R&B. But Wise would not be boxed in.

Between the release of his debut and his new record, Deacon, a moment arose where serpentwithfeet set out to reclaim his fascinating image as an artist. During the dismal beginning stages of the pandemic, he revealed his three-track Apparition EP.  Led by “A Comma”, listeners witnessed Wise stamp his foot down and dig his roots into new soil just to proclaim “life’s gotta get easier / can’t carry a heavy heart into another year / life’s gotta get easier / no heavy hearts in my next year.” 

No one can fault Wise’s ability to lure listeners into his storming heart when its weighed down with sadness. But serpentwithfeet is as complex as any being; he experiences more than the regular drab and heavy. Wise knows the ecstasies of existence, too; even when life itself deals a spoiled hand more often than not. His bold declaration to seek light rather than darkness, peace over chaos, and desire over aversion, during a time most bleak, has now come into full fruition with his lavish new record, Deacon.

For just under 30 minutes, Deacon manifests this joy, not for hedonistic purposes, but as a reaction to the gloom and unhealthy sense of desire that consumed the heart of Soil. Song by song, Deacon sees Wise cast the demons and dark energy of his debut out into the ether while tapping into true pleasure and affection, all centered around the image of Black queer love. This is hyper-realized through pseudo-fictitious scenarios that are equal parts intimate and flirtatious.

This is gleaned from the get-go, as Deacon plunges us right into the lovelorn imagination of serpentwithfeet with the opening track “Hyacinth”. With lines like, “He never played football, but look at how he holds me…” and “I went to bed single / Now I’m kissing a man that was once a hyacinth,” the opening track is the most gentle and pastoral we’ve heard serpentwithfeet, as he echoes the romantic gospel sounds of a Sunday morning. Comprised of delicate guitar strums, choral chants, and the sun-shining radiance of Wise’s soulful voice, “Hyacinth” will have listeners already swept off off their feet before they even reach the second track. 

“Same Size Shoe” enraptures with sultry R&B wooziness, Wise’s intimate words striking a more profound chord – though the track itself may come across a bit playful, initially. Riffing off the metaphor of ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’, he relates it back to the Black experience. Wise spins this infectious single with a charming touch, and his tendency for rose-colored observations evolves with even more detail and wit. “Can’t love no man ’til I measured his feet,” Wise softly sings. “How many steps he take to cross the street? / It ain’t no date if he walk behind me.” Few artists can effectively take seemingly insignificant observations and images and bloom them into intensely vivid love affairs that also have a personal and political streak. Wise is one such creator capable of doing so with ease, while still maintaining the delicate and intimate core of something as small as having the same foot size of your beloved. 

On two tracks named after men, “Malik” and “Amir”,  Deacon turns a bit steamy and faintly lustful – although, the interactions remain somewhat tamed and merely flirty as these titular characters seem to be figments of Wise’s imagination. Nevertheless, his vivid wordplay and tenderly-painted scenes come to a sweltering climax on “Wood Boy”.

Fanning the burgeoning flames ignited by the aforementioned tracks, the slinky “Wood Boy” finds serpentwithfeet yearning for his partner’s physical presence: “I miss him in my sheets… damn, I like him inside me,” he admits. With Wise’s words intensified, the track flourishes atop a shuffling beat, making it one of the most infectious cuts off the record, seductively slipping inside your ears and heart. However, as is customary with a serpentwithfeet song, “Wood Boy” is contrasted with hues of gospel music, aiding in communicating the singer’s sacred view of intimacy, both physical and emotional (in this case, most definitely physical). This collection of songs possesses a throbbing heart and a palpable sex drive, and each one of them, especially ‘Wood Boy”, can be sung in ceremonial intimacy, both in the pews or between the sheets.

Another album highlight, “Heart Storm” finds him dueting with British star NAO and veers from the bubbly dreamscapes which largely comprise Deacon. The track’s lead synth bass, combined with thundering cloud samples, is a comparably menacing sensation, aptly reflecting a dark and brooding storm ahead. Still, Wise’s vocals are characteristically heavenly and bright. There’s a slight sense of distress belying his voice, but he wears his heart on his sleeve nonetheless: “When we kiss, watch for lightning / Being near you’s so exciting / Every time you speak my name / God’s gonna send a little rain,” Wise promises. “Them roads, they gon’ get slick / But the love I have for you gon’ stick.” Despite drawing back his voice on this track, we bear witness to Wise at peak ecstasy, a cosmic-sized explosion of his own heart conveyed not by his words, but by NAO: “You know heaven is up to something / roses, tulip, daisies, all creation is going crazy.” Everything around Wise is in harmony.

Just as Wise savors every drop squeezed from the ecstasies of his own life and the imagination that runs wild through his head, the briskness of Deacon will force listeners to cherish every fleeting second of this record. Though brevity could be argued as the most significant drawback against Deacon, one can look at the flipside and say that it’ll make listeners revisit without hesitation – endlessly and in its entirety. Yes, the music of serpentwithfeet is beginning to develop replayability, whereas as his material up until his Apparition EP dabbled in the muck of abstraction and pop obscurity to the point where his music was uncomfortably baroque for the average listener. This does not mean serpentwithfeet is pulling any punches when it comes to artfulness and grandeur this time. He’s just found the sweet spot right between palatable and experimental.

Wise’s classically-trained and trembling tenor is the driving force of Deacon; constantly wobbling through various worlds. It’s an entire drama – a film with three-dimensional characters, and, miraculously, all those characters are played by a well-versed and acrobatic single voice. Whether it’s the self-duets on “Malik” and “Old & Fine”, the precise imitations of blaring trumpets on “Same Size Shoe”, or even the intimate ASMR whispers spoken so delicately on “Derrick’s Beard”, Wise’s voice soars in various directions without retreading.

As Wise’s voice and music continues to impressively dart, elude, and shapeshift through listening ears, its emotional magnitude has remained a constant. It’s effortlessly buoyant, especially now that he’s reclaimed his image; he’s not the sad and desperate crooner he was once made out to be. Wise sounds more liberated because he is. This serpent is brandishing new skin, redefined and transformed, not by the will of others but by his own love-led volition.