A Stunning Project
To categorise serpentwithfeet's work is to miss the point. From the moment he emerged, Josiah Wise has been nothing if not a shapeshifter. There have been brief periods as a jazz vocalist, a neo-soul singer, dabbles in gothic rock phases and even a brief divergence into Opera. The result is a melange of stylistic preferences, influences and eclectic aesthetics that culminated in lashings of luxuriously queer baroque pop across 2016 debut EP blisters and brilliant full length debut, Soil, released in June 2018.
Soil was dark, sometimes unsettling and complex, but the follow up release nearly three years later is a significant divergence. Wise moves away from a focus on pain, toils; blisters on the underbelly of love which often felt sharper, dealing with possession, sadness and deprivation. Wise's past projects were often the sound of an artist attempting to pierce thin membrane between himself and his love interest. Soil's ‘Waft’ after all, was a breathy ode to the odour of a body, and other tracks felt manipulative, almost crippling, and all encased by a thick gospel influenced sound which provided the perfect backdrop to songs that so often trespassed boundaries of what is considered to be worship. DEACON is a departure that remains close to the serpentwithfeet we know, the title an instant indication of religious connotations, a ‘deacon’ overseeing his subjects, but moves into a significantly less sinister place. If Soil wore devil’s horns and fangs, painting love as a deity that induces a breath constricting obsession, DEACON is muted, quiet, close, merciful; almost an experience of relearning to breathe, and to do so deeply.
Opener ‘Hyacinth’ is an instant indication of a love that feels earthly and tangible. Wise’s breathy vocals trace over a comparison of his partner to a plant, growing with him. He’s held “like a football”, spooning is encased by references to silverware and flowers pass hands here too, it’s a love that is real and there, acknowledged by the admission “distant men ain't fine as they used to be”. The racing, dramatic rushes of energy of past releases are thrown away and in their place are more regular gentle waves of emotion, his voice floating dextrously through the crisp base. There are some elements of a move to push R&B to its limit here too, configuring the tropes of 2000s and 2010s soft balladry with a futuristic sheen. ‘Amir’ feels similarly silvery: a watery sample allowing for the movement of offerings for “rose”, “beer”, the sweetly innocent “can I take you on a date?”. Similarly, ‘Same Size Shoe’ and ‘Malik’ are crafted with a remarkable attention to detail, little swells and shifts punctuating a landscape that remains warm and fond, Wise's voice finding itself in moments of sensuality that feel almost breathless.
Near the project's middle there is a subtle shift in the subject matter, and a slight shift up in the more experimental tracks Wise layered generously throughout past releases. ‘Sailors’ Superstition’ indicated signs of worry, cracks starting to show, “love becoming hallowed”, and a shift into autotune. A drum lifts his voice as the tempo quickens and threatens to shift the narrative, but ‘Heart Storm’, featuring East London singer NAO’s stunning vocals papers over the cracks that had appeared to emerge, with expansive chords sweeping through the clouds of rain and leaving behind clear blue sky. ‘Wood Boy’, 'Derrick's Beard' and ‘Old & Fine’ see him melt back into the partner he had momentarily begun to distance himself from.
DEACON is easily the most musically consistent and tightly knit project Josiah Wise has released to date. Its creative move towards softness has sculpted more accessible, commercially inviting tracks that may perhaps drive some listeners away, but it’s what makes this project an undeniable success. There are glossy hints of 2000s R&B that instantly make themselves known, and when the percussive snaps and claps that weave sunny motifs together fade away, they move into some more adventurous territory. Through the percussive elements, Wise intricately threads his gospel influences throughout like a needle through silk, allowing choirs to elevate and shift songs, ascending and descending, sometimes lifting tracks into edifying heights but always feeling more healing than damning. The serpentine quality of the signature vocals is always there, constantly present, each oscillating harmony feeling perfectly measured, slithering through a masterclass in backing vocals and gospel infused music which doesn't regress as a result, but instead raises it's head towards futurity. DEACON's simplicity pays attention to love in its most quiet, feathered and archival moments. Love here is somewhat coherent, it exists in the smallest of alcoves, blossoming out of the thinnest of cracks in a stultifying and vast concrete pavement. Wise sees love in the smallest of things, presenting his queerness as precious, cherished and enshrined. It doesn’t need pain or anguish to exist, it can simply be.
This quality is never more present than on the closer ‘Fellowship’, bringing the project in a charming circular ending. Where the few songs previous were elegiac, at times achingly so, the final track is a place for breathing. There’s space here, as prosecco and “silly faces” breeze Josiah into his thirties, a luscious chorus simply declaring his love for his friends as Sampha's airy voice provides a gorgeous anchor for Wise’s signature fluttering vibrato. It's the charming and mesmeric delivery of an artist who is finding a newfound love for the quotidian, “spending less time worrying and more time recounting the love”.
- 8.5 -
'Fellowship', 'Amir', 'Wood Boy'
Fin Cousins is a postgraduate literature student studying at Kings College London. He loves writing, music and sport and he has now completely given up on waiting for Love Island to accept his application. He also made our logo.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He edited this article and he is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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