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serpentwithfeet - soil Music Album Reviews

serpentwithfeet - soil Music Album Reviews
Taking full advantage of his voluminous, one-of-a-kind voice, experimental pop artist serpentwithfeet offers complex visions of queer love on his debut album.

Since releasing his debut EP blisters in 2016, serpentwithfeet has built up a generous aesthetic universe full of clashing textiles, warm light, and Barbie dolls. When the singer born Josiah Wise performs live, he sets up a kind of shrine onstage, draping patterned fabric over his equipment table and arranging figurines from his collection to watch him sing. His live show is an environment into which he invites the audience; he even sings his stage banter in quick, R&B-inflected runs, drawing those present deeper into his music. The Brooklyn-based artist’s debut album, soil, provides a similarly welcoming feel. It expands the template set by blisters, taking that EP’s baroque-pop flourishes and growing them into a fully realized electroacoustic milieu with the help of texturally adventurous producers Clams Casino, mmph, and Katie Gately. This is an album you can set up camp and live inside.

While blisters made use of the Haxan Cloak’s dark ambient production and a striking classical music sample to render a portrait of abject heartbreak, soil delves into a fuller, more complex vision of queer love. There are breakup tracks, like “mourning song” and “slow syrup,” but there are also songs that indulge the exhilaration of falling for someone new. In between those poles, a multifaceted excavation of human connection emerges. In serpentwithfeet’s world, love doesn’t come easy—and he wouldn’t want it any other way.

Take “fragrant,” where he sings of tracking down an absent lover’s exes so they might collectively savor what they have left of him. A slow, scraping beat carries his words, solidifying their desperation and uncertainty, while minor-key synthesizer chords flesh out the atmosphere. Though the object of his affections remains missing, Wise finds communion with the others who miss him by the end of the song. “Their bodies coiled around mine/We sang your name in harmony,” he sings, diverting the mourning of a loved one from a place of loneliness to a place of collective celebration.

These complex emotional registers run throughout soil, as though Wise cannot feel just one thing at a time. A song about sexual rejection, “wrong tree,” ranks among the album’s most upbeat, while the devotional songs often take on a weighty tone. “Already I need you/Someday I’ll plant seeds with you,” Wise sings on “waft,” and though the lyrics swell with the promise of new love, he delivers them in a timbre befitting a requiem. Growing a future with another human being is not an endeavor he takes lightly—he recognizes just how heavy and frightening that undertaking can be.

In singing about love, Wise also frequently sings about work. Images of labor accompany images of connection throughout soil, as on the album’s stunning peak “cherubim,” where he sings at the top of his tenor range, “Sowing love into you is my job.” Sound designer and pop experimentalist Katie Gately’s astounding vocal production multiplies his voice into a grotesque choir as he sings the refrain: “I get to devote my life to him/I get to sing like the cherubim.” The vibrato across the different vocal tracks falls ever so slightly out of sync, creating a reverberating effect and lending the song a sense of profound texture and depth. Rarely has the human voice sounded quite like this. The plurality of Wise’s presence here makes it seem as though he were professing his love before a crowd, as at a wedding, which is not just a celebration of romantic coupling but a bold declaration of commitment to a life’s work.

The album comes to rest on “bless ur heart,” a gentle piano ballad about falling in love, writing about the experience, and then gifting that writing to “a kind and burrowing creature” so he might share the words with his family underground. “What was once a whisper will become a deep, rumbling sound,” Wise sings, conjuring the image of love poem as earthquake. It’s a lovely conclusion that reiterates how love never really belongs to just two people: At its best, it’s a connective force, not an isolating one. It draws you more deeply into the world and the people you share it with; it teaches you to open yourself, to be porous. With soil, serpentwithfeet deeply engages with the complex membranes between the self and a loved one, the self and the world. Few albums attempt this much nuance in articulating love; Wise’s success in his ambitions feels like a gift.

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