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.