It was evident when serpentwithfeet released his debut EP blisters that a new gay talent was in the making, but it was such an odd and amorphous introduction — gospel tinged with R&B and experimental electronics — that it was difficult to predict where the man born Josiah Wise would take his unique electronic template.
His debut LP, soil, arrives today, and the only thing tiny about it is the lowercase type that Wise favors for his titles. Whereas blisters left the door open for Wise to walk right up his own backside with an ethereal, pretentious and ultimately meaningless take on modern music, soil — as earthy as its name — moors serpentwithfeet’s expressive high tenor to matters of the world both corporeal and divine. His background in gospel music, and the way he layers angelic choirboy harmonizing atop sparse contemporary grooves, creates a fresh archetype: gay gospel R&B.
“More recently I started taking a step back and seeing how much gospel music has colored my experience,” he has said, “and realized I am having a gospel experience. My life is a gospel experience. Some people think in tweets, or in sonnets or haiku; I think in gospel.”
The serpentwithfeet version of gospel is as diverse as it is devout. He phones all his lover’s ex-boyfriends for a kiss on “fragrant” in order to “know if they still carried your fragrance.” The death of love, of desire, permeates the slow-burning eulogy of “mourning song.” He rhapsodizes the men in his life on the insistent “cherubim.” And he closes his debut with the gossamer, exquisitely rendered ballad “bless ur heart.”
There are so many antecedents to the serpentwithfeet sound that it’s hard to name them all, but you can hear the influence of artists as diverse as Nina Simone, The Weeknd, Laurie Anderson, Anohni, Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin, probably some boy band or another, FKA Twigs; it goes on.
Yet these touchstones pass through your mind with alarming frequency — aaah, that’s what this sounds like! — and then are just as quickly gone, leaving you with the impression that, though Josiah Wise has built his church with borrowed materials, it’s like no house of worship you’ve ever entered.