When Josiah Wise, who performs as serpentwithfeet, announced that his new album – DEACON – would be an exploration of “a world wherein Black love is paramount…a study rather than a story delving into Black, gay love…”, most listeners would have assumed that this was a deeply personal, highly individualised project designed to celebrate the successes of Wise’s own life. However, this is no regular artist, and this is no average album.
DEACON, while remaining excellently Black, and powerfully Queer, contains within its songs messages that are universal in the truest sense - each speaking to the experiences of all who have ever known what it is to love and be loved. Where Wise's first album under his creative moniker, soil, was a rich, baroque treatise on loves losses, DEACON is its blood-red, heart-bursting opposite in the very best way.
From the opener “Hyacinth”, to the closer “Fellowship”, we see an artist revelling in the unlimited potential of their songwriting craft. When Wise said in the run-up to the album release that he “originally approached this project wanting to make something that felt very sensuous,” to go and make “something a lot softer, a lot more gentle than my previous work,” he was telling the truth.
“Hyacinth” is stark, and ghostly, but inviting – in the way that Jeff Buckley’s finest songs were. The slow-burn R&B jams “Same Size Shoe” and “Old & Fine” (a particular highlight) showcase serpent’s strongest songwriting chops, and his smoothest caramel vocal tones. When the strange, robo-Beach Boys vocal blending happens half way through “Same Size Shoe”, it’s sheer ear candy. “Malik”, another clear highlight, brings a gospel-derived earnestness to a sincere, wide-eyed ode to infatuation – another string to Wise’s bow.
“Amir” is a late '90s throwback, with a rolling guitar line and sultry, layered vocals, which leads (via a short interlude) into the strutting, sexy “Sailor’s Superstition”. By the time you’ve got to “Fellowship”, Wise has completed an exhausting, exhaustive tour, blessed with beautiful tune after beautiful tune. Like Janet Jackson in her prime, Wise uses classic R&B flavours but blends them with fresh, experimental tastes, whipping up a truly unique recipe in the process.
All of these songs – every single one – are of the same calibre you might expect from universally-renowned artists, from Frank Ocean to The Weeknd. These are world-class songs, thoughtfully sequenced into an endlessly replayable record. DEACON is, quite clearly, a complex, rich and elegant collection that points at one very simple truth: love is central to a life well lived.