When a song yearns for a “you,” where does the listener envision the singer and their subject? Music videos might offer the fantasy of artists directly serenading their beloveds, but love songs often feel more private, more desperate, than that. They can be, as Madonna pointed out, like prayers: requests for impossible intervention, recited alone.
On his hair-raising debut album Soil, the experimental musician serpentwithfeet (Josiah Wise) seems to call upon a higher power as he thinks through his desires. Musically, as the name serpentwithfeet suggests, he’s interested in reconciling opposites: the righteousness of gospel and the dread of the gothic, the control of a soloist and the abandon of a street preacher, the complexity of classical music and the easy pleasure of pop. The songs lumber slowly, but his voice is delicate. His grandest pronouncements arrive as mutters, and his smallest confessions at arena scale.
The bewitching standout of an opener, “Whisper,” immediately raises the question of who he’s communing with, and how. “I know you feel too old, but if you whisper, only I will hear you,” goes the refrain, a small treasure of phrasing, with Wise’s voice starting in a sludgy trough, hurrying to peak on “whisper,” and then gliding back down. A tone resembling woodwind spirals carefully, teasingly, and the overall effect is to make it seem like he’s asking for intimacy of a sort that simply can’t be found in the physical world. Then the spell breaks with a hammering thump over which he testifies, in melismatic gushes, about the depth of his love.
Things get weirder from there, but as he explains in an insectoid whine of a chorus on the second song, “Each time you deny my mess / You’ll find yourself closer to me.” Wise’s multiplicity of vocal approaches and only occasional interest in hewing predictably to the rhythm recall such avant-garde types as Björk (with whom he’s collaborated) and Anohni (an inevitable comparison, and not only because they are both majestically dressed queer folks). His producers Katie Gately, mmph, Clams Casino, and Paul Epworth certainly work with an ear for the disorienting. Yet Wise also launches catchy refrains like lifeboats in a roiling lake, and the third act of many of these songs feels like the solving of a problem, with the grooves and harmonies smoothing out, opening up.
It’s serious stuff, but with a sense of play. The carnival-organ oom-pahs of “Wrong Tree” might initially land as a conceptual joke, but a careful assemblage of countermelodies makes the song one of the most satisfying pieces here. On “Mourning Song,” Wise coos what sounds like “baby boy” amid mellow orchestral sounds and a horrifying sample of an animal’s groan. Most gloriously baffling is “Cherubim,” on which Wise sings stiff and proud like the early-20th-century legend Paul Robeson as a danceable, panting beat keeps time. “I get to devote my life to him,” goes the stern chorus—a refrain that works as gospel and as romantic declaration.
Indeed, the main concern of Wise—raised singing in church in Baltimore, schooled in music at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and now making a racket from Brooklyn—appears to be the overlaps between worship and love, between furtive hope and open praise. Often, the results are gutting, as when he asks, “Can I make your favorite meal before you move out?”—a plea of unquestioning yet painfully unanswered love. “I don’t want to be small, small sad / I want to be big, big sad,” he sings, elsewhere. “I want to make a pageant of my grief.” He’s done it, and it’s overwhelming enough to make you wonder about the pageants being mounted, all the time, within everyone else.
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