Music

serpentwithfeet's 'soil' Is a Visionary Statement of Arrival, a Potent and Singular Masterpiece

Photo: Ash Kingston / Courtesy of Secretly Canadian

On his debut album, experimental R&B artist serpentwithfeet delivers a masterpiece of intimate poetics and gospel-inspired soul music about love and identity.

soil
serpentwithfeet

Secretly Canadian / Tri Angle

8 June 2018

The love song is a flat and beaten form. Its most popular manifestations are marred with uncritical clichés, usually expressed in dubious generalizations about sexual power dynamics and practices. It lives today most often as an exercise in superficial universalism rather than the kind of distinctive exploration of the self that one expects from serious songwriters, usually devoid of the psychological and emotional particulars that resonate and immerse. Love, as portrayed in today's mass media, is a predominantly generic experience.

New York-based singer-songwriter serpentwithfeet, born Josiah Wise, is endlessly bewitched by the mechanisms at work in love — not as a collective emotion, but as a personal process. On soil, his first LP and follow-up to acclaimed 2016 EP blisters, Wise offers 11 tracks of slow-burn euphorics and revelatory soul dedicated to a chemical, elemental understanding of his own romantic, familial, and personal experiences. On the album, Wise immediately reduces his perspective to an individual level, separating himself from the horde as he croons in opening track "whisper", "If you whisper, only I will hear you / Not all adults are making love / Breaking their backs out of fear / I'm here with you." He immediately narrows the scope of the album and abstracts himself away from traditional confessional lyrics, leaning instead into a more subliminal — and thus private — poetry.

On soil, Wise excavates the multidimensionality of his being as reflected through the process of love. He tries on many different roles: he plays the nurturer in "seedless" ("When you're needy and seedless / You're hungry, I'll feed it / I'll comfort all of you") and the deprived lover in "messy" ("I've been sitting alone for hours / Waiting for you to bring your ugliest parts to me"), the ardent disciple in "cherubim" ("I get to devote my life to him / I get to sing like the cherubim") and the lost soul in "mourning song" (I'm annoyed with clothes today / I'd rather swaddle myself in sorrow today"), as well as the tortured artist on "bless ur heart" ("When I give these books away will my ink betray me? / Will my stories resist wings and grow feet and convince men that I'm boasting? / Or will my psalms seek the company of lonely breaths? / Will they inspire subtle lovers to kiss with mouths they don't have yet?"). Growing up in a deeply religious family as a gay black man with an interest in the occult no doubt cursed Wise with a thoroughly fractured identity in his youth, but on soil, he acknowledges the schisms with the clarity of a matured artist.

That explains the enormous religious influence on both the sonics and poetic symbology of the album. The operatic but minimalist production (handled here by Paul Epworth, Clams Casino, mmph, and Tri Angle's Katie Gately) is a step away from the Haxan Cloak's boisterous but occasionally distracting work on blisters, pulling mostly from gospel music and offering Wise a subtle emotional framework. The album swims both with sounds of the club, and the church reworked into a delicate balance, synthesized just enough to cradle Wise's sweetly whispered and vulnerable vibrato and his otherworldly choral harmonies. Here, the hymnal architecture is bruised by the unseen hands of evanescent ex-lovers, twisted among the sinews of both cosmic and physical, earthly love, revealing what is frequently referred to as Wise's "pagan" sensibilities. The soft instrumentation and psalmodic framing is a way of acknowledging how his roots as an artist, tangled though they may be, have reflected in his growth.

These contrasting roles are indicative of the many conflicts playing out in Wise's heart throughout the album. Of all the dichotomies soil probes — heaven and earth, soul and body, society and individual — the most present is the struggle between the intense desires of his secret self and the muted fears of his suppressed personality, a nod to the past anxieties surrounding identity. That strife is a persistent presence in Wise's lyrics; on "fragrant", for instance, he refers to his "illegal love", and on "wrong tree", he cries, "The fruit I couldn't wait to eat / Suddenly began to bleed." Wise gracefully touches the torment stemming from the duality of his private and public lives throughout soil.

Indeed, with each song, Wise travels from softly sung tension to explosive emotion, surging out of an intimate environment of self-conscious confessional songwriting into a whirlwind of vibrant, all-consuming emotion. That is Wise awakening to his true self. As he says on "Mourning Song", "I don't want to be small-small sad / I want to be big-big sad / I want to make a pageant of my grief." Each song crescendos with his angst, and eventually erupts at the point of self-actualization. Of course, the album doesn't offer a resolution for the larger complications haunting it, only affirmation and acceptance of a helplessly shattered existence made easier through love, both internal and external. Wise can't address global, institutional power, but he can adjust his role within those systems and perhaps make it easier for others.

It's fitting, then, that the album is so formally transformative and yet so fixed to Wise's private imagination. The rare combination of vast and interwoven themes, intimate songwriting, and technical precision lands soil in the pantheon of the decade's most powerful and ambitious vocal albums, somewhere between Frank Ocean, James Blake, and Björk's bold contemporary work, but ultimately, the record is its own immense beast. Wise is a dramatic and rapturous singer capable of the most dynamic vocal runs, even in a murmur, and the passion sweeping through his voice is matched only by the naked, poetic individualism of his lyrics. The album is a visionary statement of arrival, a potent and singular masterpiece that exposes the deepest chambers of a fiercely beating heart with a singular purity of focus. It's a mesmerizing journey of self-actualization in an era when constant connection makes that all the more difficult. After soil, Wise's reach seems infinite.

10


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Music

Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.

Music

Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.

Music

The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.

Music

Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.

Film

In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?

Music

Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.

Music

Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Music

Titan to Tachyons' Experimental Heaviness on Full Display via "Earth, And Squidless" (premiere)

Featuring current members of Imperial Triumphant, Titan to Tachyons break incredible new ground in the realm of heavy music.

Music

Jerry Leger Teams with Moby Grape's Don Stevenson for "Halfway 'Til Gone" (premiere)

Reminiscent of Lee Hazlewood and the Everly Brothers, Jerry Leger's "Halfway 'Til Gone" is available on all streaming platforms on 6 August.

Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.