serpentwithfeet‘s debut album “soil” is now out on Secretly Canadian and Tri Angle Records.
“soil” is the much-hyped first studio album by Josiah Wise, better known as serpentwithfeet. Or you could say that he is better known as the guy with a pentagram and the word “SUICIDE” (all caps, which makes a nice contrast with his choice of songtitles) tattooed in his forehead. Ever since he started to garner attention with his first singles in 2016, Wise has been adamant that he is a one of a kind artist, and even his physical appearance seems to be working towards that goal. Often used as a derogatory term or just as a well-worn cliché that PR agents shoehorn in artist bios, the word “personal” gets thrown around quite a lot to stand for “confessional”. serpentwithfeet’s music might as well be regarded as personal, but definitely not in an unflattering way. If soil is a personal album, it’s not because Wise is engaging in heart-in-your-sleeve, tasteless lyricism, but because he is the only person that could be making music like this – here “personal” stands not for angsty but for unique. For better or for worse, “soil” is an album as much as it is a cocky artistic manifesto – at times brilliant, at times impenetrable, at times simply irredeemable.
As a teen, Wise was a gifted choirboy in the East Coast of the United States. He took part in tournaments, he travelled through Europe – he did the whole thing. It was at that time when he started to be influenced by radically different kinds of music – here was a kid with classical training who was nevertheless worried about queer and black representation in what can sometimes be a somewhat reactionary world. It was this interest in more left-field art forms that has driven him to merge classical influences with experimental electronic music that would be right up Björk’s alley – see the string-led “slow syrup”. Wise even remixed a song from Björk’s “Utopia”, which makes a ton of sense if you compare both albums and their lack of reluctance to embrace fluid, non-.definite song structures and melodies.
Wise’s childhood and teenage years (If you’re looking for an in-depth biography of Josiah Wise, Issue 124 of Loud and Quiet includes a simply suberb piece on him) have certainly helped him craft the fascinating religious overtones that impregnate his whole work (his artistic moniker is basically a reference to Satan, and anyone with a certain level of familiarity with the Bible will recognize how pervasive the world “soil” is in the scriptures”). serpentwithfeet’s songs are very much like prayers that refuse to be sung by a congregation. Here is where his sense of the personal shines through again, as he devotes his efforts to make a kind of music that manages to feel communal and strictly private at the same time. His praise of his lover as if he was a God-like being reconciles the album’s religious influences -as canalized through Wise’s choir-like backing vocals and arrangements- with its overtly sexual, sometimes even camp-y lyrical themes: “When you’re needy and seedless / You’re hungry, I’ll feed it,” he sings in the minimalist, industrial-inspired “seedless”.
At times, Wise’s lyrics are affectionate and touching, as in album highlight “cherubim” (“Sewing love into you is my job”) or in the aforementioned “seedless”: “I love crawling but you’re breaking yourself / Can I make your favorite meal before you move out?” Other times, it’s not quite clear whether one should take his lyrics at face value, as his songs awkwardly move into Lonely Island territory – intermittently terrible (“I’m walking like a virgin again”), intermittently hilarious (“I wanna fuck but can we read about it first?”). At his best, Wise is a wildly talented lyricist with an immense gift for throwing you off when you less expect it. At his worst, he borders so much on self-parody that it’s hard to take him seriously, like in the tuneless “waft”: “He knows I can’t fall in love if he’s wearing cologne.”
From Katie Gately to Paul Epworth, soil has been produced by four different people, which might account for its sometimes irritating vastness. It’s aiming at too many things at the same time – when it accomplishes these things, soil is just excellent, an album that mounts a strong case for serpentwithfeet as one of the most captivating up and coming musicians today. Nobody else could come up with songs like “cherubim” or “whisper”, let alone making his artistic vision so profusely clear. When it fails, though, it fails badly – “waft” lacks any redeemable quality, and it’s not easy to make it through the whole thing without wanting to skip a few bits. Nevertheless, “soil” is a bold, surprising album, an unlikely yet successful merger between Arca and Benjamin Clementine that is as moving as overwhelmingly unabated.