DEACON doesn’t match the memorable, eerie energy of soil, but is still mostly successful as an articulation of serpentwithfeet’s new, breezy era (interlude?) of calm.
There’s a certain irony to the all-caps stylization of serpentwithfeet’s (née Josiah Wise) latest album, DEACON, as it’s a distinctly mellowed, less assuming offering than the pair of bold records he previously released: debut EP, blisters, and breakthrough full-length LP, soil, both of which were titled in lower case. Those earlier works were rooted in dark romanticism, tracks detailing love and obsession and carnality, and progressing from ominous horns, crescendoing strings, and eerie electronics on blisters, to a cycling of jaunty carnival horror, minimalist plink-and-twinkle balladry, and apocalypse-inflected R&B on soil. Between the two, Wise’s honeyed trill, the heavily-vibratoed runs became increasingly prominent, guiding tracks rather than just supplementing them, a shift augmented by scaled-back production and softened sounds. One of the most welcome results of this notable evolution was soil’s more heavily gospel bent — if of a decidedly brimstone variety — each proclamation of love, lust, and loss imbued with Old Testament doom.
If that epoch, which found revelry in downfall, was thematically apropos for an artist cheekily monikered serpentwithfeet, DEACON represents a move toward some personal Eden, pushing forward with further refinement of Wise’s gospel core and his drive toward a more delicate sonic atmosphere. The baroque flourishes of past records are mostly absent, leaving breeziness in their wake. Where soil felt distinctly like post-midnight listening, with tracks that seemed to spring from the shadows and dwell on dangerous glamours, DEACON is easy afternoon listening: Wise’s falsetto is less menacing, while the songs are more straightforwardly constructed and ride more comfortable rhythms. It’s all part of a worshipful, thankful vibe that permeates the entire album; Wise here celebrates calm, leaving many past peaks and valleys behind. “Derrick’s Beard” takes on a hymnal quality: the track is built on a few piano chords and spaced-out key strikes, with a synthy, electric organ drone and hummed vocal harmonies giving a congregational impression, and, after a ten-second spoken-word intro, finds Wise softly repeating “Come over here / I miss your beard” for the last minute-plus. If most of the songs here feel like psalms, then thirty-second interlude “Dawn” is the album’s doxology, simply exulting “Whoa, what a mornin’ / When stars begin to fall.”
What’s most distinctive, though, is that the album never feels like an artificial exercise in ecclesiastical dress-up. Now that we’re here, it’s clear that Wise has been steadily, organically moving toward — or, at least, circling — this artistic destination all the time, and while DEACON’s instances of canticled songwriting might seem like mere affectation on the surface, the lyrics are elsewhere substantive enough to challenge such assessments. Wise both acknowledges the album’s thrust and offers a bit of meta-reflection on his own evolution in the album’s first-sung words: “I think my green thumb has lead me to a real one / So glad the soil has yielded something more than bad luck” (from opener “Hyacinth”). Artists like Chance the Rapper and Kanye West have in recent years mined rap’s gospel history in their own work — Kanye fusing his production genius to more classical, choral sounds; Chance opting more to add some praise-music inflection to contemporaneous hip hop textures. Wise does much the same for R&B, but without as jarring right-turn as either of those two. Wise’s sound has always been a reconfiguration of the past two decades of the genre, and he here lands at something like a 2021 refraction of the ’90s ethos and sound of Boyz II Men, but still fiercely sexualized and celebratory of queer love; where the end of “Wood Boy’”s first verse — “I miss you bein’ in my sheets / I want you on top of me” — could comfortably fit this earlier decade, the song’s pre-chorus croon of “Damn, he feelin’ on my body / Damn, he fillin’ up my body, Damn, I like him inside me” is unrepentantly serpentwithfeet. The flipside of this newfound equilibrium is that nothing here quite reaches the heights of his last record, which textured its worship in dissonant, macabre sounds and more emphatic poetry that complicated its spiritualism and found beauty in mania. But there’s a distinct pleasure in the specific way that Wise articulates peace, and to say that his latest album is sub-soil is not to suggest that it doesn’t still mostly soar.
Published as part of Album Roundup — March 2021 | Part 4.