Josiah Wise’s new album DEACON is an exhilarating listen. The artist – known as serpentwithfeet – has created a soulful, beautiful record that gives listeners an intimate glimpse into his romantic, sentimental heart. Deacon is a gentle and swirling melding of atmospheric and moody sounds: cloudy, ethereal synths waft, subtle beats skip, a guitar strum, and angelic voices float effortlessly. He looks to the 1980s and the 1990s when crafting the record; there are some nods to New Romantic sounds as well as Boyz II Men-esque harmonies throughout. Yet, Deacon sounds contemporary and modern, and the past echoes don’t date the record.
The album opens up with a Beatles-esque guitar solo on the wonderful “Hyacinth”. The song unfurls into a lovely homage to 1990s R&B. Poetic lyrics that invoke pastoral images are crooned over a lush, full soundscape that hums with airtight harmonies, haunting vocals chanting, silky smooth synths. It sounds like a classic Janet Jackson ballad, stunning and appealingly formless and somewhat meandering, as the beauty hypnotizes listeners.
He reaches a similarly candid tone with the moving “Derrick’s Beard”, which, like “Hyacinth”, is awash with moving harmonies and caroling vocals. The song is barely a song but a pretty musical interlude (it lasts a little over a minute and a half), and it feels simultaneously studied and improvised. The repeat of the song’s lyrics (“Come over here / Missing your beard”) makes it sound as if Wise is toiling away in the studio, feeling out the song’s sound, but the voices are carefully and intricately layered.
The album is dominated by sleek ballads, but some moments stir the album. Though it’s not a club banger or a disco number, “Sailors’ Superstition” moves nimbly with a light funky groove with some stunning vocal work by Wise, who moves from a plaintive middle voice to a sexy falsetto. The mid-tempo dance beat and the evocative synthesizers give the song a slight 1980s chill. Though the album plays with song structure, melody, and pop hooks, “Sailors’ Supersition” sounds closest to a radio-friendly R&B tune.
Though Wise and his producers masterfully create a chill, laidback funk symphony, the most arresting part of DEACON is the honest lyrics that celebrate queer love. “Amir” is a relaxed tune (with some expert classical guitar), with witty lyrics that toast to a new love. Wise is naked and vulnerable as he exalts about the titular Amir, who is such a catch. The singer admits, “You so kind / You so warm / Damn, I could shed a tear.”
Similarly, the buoyant “Old & Fine” is a glorious paean to the devotion Wise feels for his lover, secure and joyful in the knowledge that their love will be long-lasting. He sings, “Wanna spend a long time with you / Ain’t gon’ put no clock on it / Wanna get old and fine with you.” The last part of the lyrics, especially heartwarming because in his vision of their future, they haven’t just aged together but have remained beautiful. Is there anything as touching as Wise trilling, “I grow 10 feet taller when you’re near, sweetie.” And in the album’s standout track, “Heart Storm” (whose synths evoke Stranger Things), soul genius NAO joins Wise to sing lyrics that use nature metaphors to heighten the emotions (“Every time you speak my name/God’s gonna send a little rain…The sky is gon’ split open once we are holding each other”)
Part of why DEACON is so remarkable – aside from its obvious musical merits – is that it’s a rare record that highlights Black queer love. Although pop culture and pop music have become more inclusive in the last few years, it’s still subversive and powerful to hear such an honest, bracing tribute to same-sex love. Wise’s lyrics though poetic and allegorical, are also explicit in their telling of Wise’s queer identity. DEACON delivers on the fantastic promise that Wise’s earlier work – most notably his debut LP soil – has shown. He brings a creative, eccentric, and intelligent sound to alternative soul.