Culture Trips

Serpentwithfeet: Deacon review – a swoon in the Californian sun | Music

There can be few albums this year more wholesome, soppy or unabashedly life-affirming than Deacon, the second full-length outing from Serpentwithfeet, a man whose many facial tattoos include a large pentagram in a circle on his forehead and the new album’s title in block capitals across his throat. Across 11 varied tracks, Deacon is a doom-banishing celebration of love and friendship, a record bathed in California sunshine and gratitude. It is not only at stark odds with the maverick songwriter-producer’s forbidding-looking presence – nose ring, hair in horn-like pigtails – but also with his previous body of work.

Born in Baltimore, transplanted to Brooklyn, but now happily ensconced in Los Angeles, 32-year-old Josiah Wise grew up singing in church, an experience that has coloured his gospel-infused take on R&B. But he also trained in jazz and the classical tradition. This eclectic corpus of knowledge has given rise to a series of arresting EPs and a previous album, 2018’s Soil, full of heavenly vocal gymnastics as well as arrhythmic, atypical chamber-pop inflections. In 2017, he went on tour with indie band Grizzly Bear and duetted with Björk, a fellow traveller in vocal effusion. Since then, Serpentwithfeet has added rapper Ty Dolla Sign, Ellie Goulding and designer-turned-musician Virgil Abloh to his gamut of collaborators.

While Wise’s previous work hasn’t exactly been forbidding, its left-field digitals and multitracked, borderline operatic vocals have tended to dwell on high drama and the agonies of love. Not any more. Deacon is a 180-degree pivot, a record so serene, poppy and loved up you can’t help but swoon along with it.

Its lead single, Same Size Shoe, hinges on a nagging schoolyard chorus: “Me and my boo wear the same size shoe,” he croons, so clearly delighted that he calls for trumpets and then starts scatting. “Bah bah bah dah!”

Old & Fine looks forward to Serpentwithfeet and his “sweetie” putting in the years together. “Love you like I love the dawn chorus, I’m ready for the road before us,” he vows. Nature – flowers, storms, the dawn – has replaced religious arcana as his go-to resource for metaphor. He really can’t believe his luck. “Don’t tell me the universe ain’t listening,” a pitch-shifted Serpentwithfeet sings on opening track, Hyacinth.

The consolations of domestic bliss take up much of this album’s running time, with just a few interludes in which Serpentwithfeet remembers – or imagines – other men who have gone by the wayside. Monogamy gets star billing here, but Deacon also honours other loves. “Blessed is the man who wears socks with his sandals,” he chuckles fondly, about Malik from Atlanta, finger-clicking all the while. Amir is “so kind and so warm, damn, I could shed a tear”. All we know about the bearded Derrick is that he’s got to get up early, but Serpentwithfeet doesn’t want to let him.

Deacon presents same-sex black love as healing and transcendental, full of tenderness and humour, merged footwear and glasses of prosecco. The one exception is the sexually explicit Wood Boy, although this isn’t merely lustful, but transformational, finding him utterly “rearranged” by loving ecstasy. “Where’s the grocery store?/ What’s my address?/ What’s my name again?” he hyperventilates. In interviews, Serpentwithfeet makes plain his intention to deliver the specifics of queer relationships as universals – because they are.

If some of this bliss is delivered as edgy, minor key R&B – the Weeknd isn’t all that far away – one creeping note of caution sounds, mid-album. Sailors’ Superstition worries that Serpentwithfeet and his love should keep humble, lest they tempt the spirits of the air. “Don’t whistle on a ship,” goes this very different chorus, “we don’t want to rouse the wind.”

But it’s only a blip. Fellowship, the album closer, rounds things off with a group-sing in which Sampha and Lil Silva join Serpentwithfeet on the chorus. “My friends, my friends, I’m grateful for the love I share with my friends,” they chant.

Previously, Serpentwithfeet’s words tended toward the rococo; on Deacon, he speaks very directly. “Maybe it’s the blessing of my 30s/ I’m spending less time worrying/ And more time recounting the love,” he effuses. There is very much an agenda here, speaking to troubled times. “Deacon is something that I wanted to create in a tradition that I saw,” he told the Guardian recently, “which is black people rejoicing anyhow. Black people living their damn life anyhow. Because nobody can take my peace or my joy from me.”

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