Josiah Wise once described his religion as silence. In an interview with Afropunk last year, the musician known as serpentwithfeet talked about his “significant need for silence,” necessary for contemplation and reflection and, ultimately, happiness. Silence and sitting with one’s emotions are tenets carried over from a childhood spent in the church, recalling the hushed pews of Wise’s youth; more recently, that same environment has been cultivated in the sunny exteriors of Los Angeles, where serpentwithfeet moved from Brooklyn a couple years ago. That solitude courses through his sophomore album, DEACON. Not in a lonely sense but in a peaceful way — it’s an album that treats contentedness as a reverent state. On “Fellowship,” its lead single, Wise floats through the air as he celebrates the friends that hold him way up high in the clouds. Backed by Sampha and Lil Silva, Wise luxuriates in his newfound quiet time: “This is the blessing of my 30s/ I’m spending less time worrying/ And more time recounting the love.”
soil, serpentwithfeet’s 2018 debut album, struggled to find the stillness that comes so easily on DEACON. soil was operatic and grand but it also sounded dour, weighed down by past love and regrets. It was beautiful but it could also be harrowing — violent music that might have accompanied an ornate horror film. soil and its preceding blisters EP sounded busy — the arrangements were so intricate and ambitious that it’s no wonder serpentwithfeet found admirers in Björk and Ty Dolla $ign and Nao. DEACON is ambitious too, but in a different way. Where his past work layered sounds into an oppressive smear — like on the highlight “cherubim,” feverish and a little manic in its intense desire — DEACON sounds like a gleaming streak of light.
Last year’s Apparition EP was a step toward this new sound. “A Comma” in particular felt like a demarcation line, like Wise was letting go of all his baggage and allowing himself to be happy. “Life’s gotta get easier, can’t carry a heavy heart into another year,” he sings. It’s that thread he picks up again on DEACON, where he navigates how invigorating it is to feel good about yourself. DEACON is a celebratory album — it sounds airy and weightless. It is, I guess you could say, a more traditional take on R&B, pulling more from Wise’s icons like Janet Jackson and Brandy than his gospel and classical roots, but he still keeps his flair for the dramatic. His knack for pithy vocal phrasings and ear for pristine production keeps anything from sounding too familiar.
There are also, refreshingly, no songs about heartbreak. Instead, each song celebrates love and has a lot of fun doing so. Wise treats love as an all-consuming force on DEACON. The Nao collaboration “Heart Storm” finds him swept up in it, rapturous and heavenly. Wise acts as an observer of the world and how many different ways love — explicitly queer love — can manifest itself. The men of DEACON are constantly admired and often named. He worships them in the same way one would worship a god: “Malik” and “Amir” and “Derrick’s Beard” are all character portraits of specific Black men. “Wood Boy” is an immaculately horny song about getting fucked so good you can’t remember your own name. “Damn, he feelin’ on my body/ Damn, he filling up my body/ Damn, I like him inside me,” Wise croons. He blends the ecclesiastical with the sensual, entwining them until they’re one and the same. He reflects a reality where queer men are treated like kings and their love is lush and sumptuous and everlasting.
Wise celebrates his own grounded relationship too, builds a unified front against the rest of the world. On “Same Size Shoe,” he joyfully espouses the benefits of having a partner who can relate to his own experiences: “Me and my boo wear the same size shoe/ Boy, you got my trust ‘cus I’m just like you,” he sings. “Old & Fine” imagines a happy ending that is so often denied to gay men. “Wanna spend a long time with you/ Ain’t gon’ put no clock on it/ Wanna get old & fine with you,” he sings, sounding larger than life, filled up with the love and affection he feels for his man and, by extension, everyone else around him.
It’s a blissful feeling that culminates in the album’s marvelously unhurried closing track, “Fellowship,” whose chorus feels especially poignant in such a fractured year: “My friends, my friends/ I’m thankful for the love I share with my friends.” It’s a simple statement, but sometimes simplicity can be the hardest feeling to come by. With DEACON, Wise has crafted a serpentwithfeet album that mimics those quiet times he values so much — ones that make you grateful for the place you’ve found in the world. That’s a hard enough headspace to get into all on your own; to hear it so consistently realized throughout an entire album feels downright magical.
Other albums out this week:
• Xiu Xiu’s OH NO.
• The Antlers’ Green To Gold.
• Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & the London Symphony Orchestra’s Promises.
• Armand Hammer & the Alchemist’s HARAM.
• Tune-Yards’ sketchy.
• Lost Girls (Jenny Hval & Håvard Volden)’s Menneskekollektivet.
• Tomahawk’s Tonic Immobility.
• Death From Above 1979’s Is 4 Lovers.
• Esther Rose’s How Many Times.
• Genghis Tron’s Dream Weapon.
• Citizen’s Life In Your Glass World.
• Civic’s Future Forecasts.
• Clark’s Playground In A Lake.
• Noga Erez’s KIDS.
• Young Dolph & Key Glock’s Dum & Dummer 2.
• Rod Wave’s SoulFly.
• Floatie’s Voyage Out.
• Anna Fox Rochinsky’s Cherry.
• Kali Masi’s [laughs].
• MJ Lenderman’s Ghost Of Your Guitar Solo.
• Carrie Underwood’s My Savior.
• Evanescence’s The Bitter Truth.
• Jagjaguwar’s 25th anniversary compilation, Dilate Your Heart.
• Joe Strummer’s best-of compilation Assembly.
• First Aid Kid’s live Leonard Cohen tribute album Who By Fire.
• Tame Impala’s InnerSpeaker 10th anniversary box set.
• Real Estate’s Half A Human EP.