A shroud of mystery coats the ethereal minimalist music of serpentwithfeet. As that stage name suggests, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter (born Josiah Wise) frequently fixates upon the cosmic, the ancient, the mystical, the macabre. He’s spent his career finding new ways to alchemically blend magical realism with his own aesthetics as a queer Black man.
To call Serpent’s sophomore LP Deacon his most accessible work yet is hardly a slight. It also may well be his funniest, queerest, and most accomplished work thus far. His lyrics are more direct and open than ever, but no less idiosyncratic. His arrangements sound poppier (informed heavily by the gospel and 90s R&B Wise grew up with), but his penchant for intricate avant-garde melodrama remains very much intact—as does his sprawling, mellifluous tenor. Clocking in at a slim 29 minutes, the record nonetheless feels grand and sweeping—a powerful song cycle celebrating Serpent’s love of life and of Black men.
On opener “Hyacinth,” he goes to sleep with the titular flower at his bedside, awaking to find it transformed into the man of his dreams. With its sleepy guitar intro that expands to include panting sax and fluttery, twinkling synths, the song sets the perfect tone for a quietly joyful, rapturous album that treads a delicate line between otherworldly things and the reality of human romance. It’s one of many tracks on Deacon that prove Serpent equally adept at expressing cozy sentiment and blatant horniness, often within the same line: “He never played football/But look at how he holds me/He never needed silverware but I’m his little spoon/And all the soup on his mouth came from me.”
The rich (super)natural motif of “Hyacinth” carries through much of Deacon. Stars fall out of the sky on Boyz II Men-esque acapella interlude “Dawn.” On the bouncy Take a Daytrip production “Sailors’ Superstition,” he counsels his man that they must “stay humble” and avoid “rousing the wind” if they hope to gain favor with the “rascals of the air”—after all, “most couples stop smiling after the first year,” don’t they? “Heart Storm,” a smoldering duet with NAO, tells of love powerful enough to alter the course of nature: “Boy, when you and I get together/‘Spect some wicked weather/When we kiss, watch for lightning/Being near you’s so exciting/Every time you speak my name/God’s gonna send a little rain…”
Standout single “Same Size Shoe” is a slow, smoky ode to romantic synchronicity. Urged on by a ghostly choir of yeahs that sound like a spectral version of Grease’s “tell me more” crowd, Serpent gleefully regales us about his new “sole-mate.” His octave jumping vocals and bursts of soft laughter reveal his unbridled joy at the love he’s discovered.
Sharing a shoe size might seem an arbitrary or even obsessive prerequisite for a partner. But here, Serpent equates it with reciprocity and compatibility, the sight of one’s best self reflected in another person—the ability to (literally) keep the same pace together. Plus that’s just a really neat commonality for two people to bond over: “Me and my boo wear the same size shoe/Boy, you got my trust ‘cause I’m like you.”
Around the 2:07 mark of “Shoe,” something remarkable happens. Serpent calls out for his “trumpet” and proceeds to mimic the sounding instrument with his own modified voice (fa fa da, fa fa daaa). That voice quickly becomes layered over itself into a mass chorus of synthesized “horn section” harmonies. It’s an unexpected but welcomely goofy and fun moment—both a literalization of the voice-as-instrument and a glorious extension of the song’s dreamy euphoria.
”Wood Boy” deals with exactly what you’d expect from its title—getting fucked silly by a guy with a huge cock. The beat grumbles and growls and deep voices stickily groan their commentary (“Damn, he feelin’ on my body/Damn, he fillin’ up my body/Damn, I like him inside me”) as an eager Serpent assumes the role of bottom to his well-endowed lover’s top. He can barely think straight when it’s all over (“Where’s the grocеry store? What’s my address? What’s my name again?”) but who cares when the dick is this good? The sweaty haze coating the track perfectly encapsulates the woozy ecstasy of such wild yet intimate moments. It’s an all-timer in the pantheon of songs about gay sex, earning a spot alongside Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” and Grace Jones’ “Pull Up to the Bumper.”
Even the more lowkey songs on Deacon bear a potency all their own. “Malik” reads like a modern update of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130—the Atlanta-based beau is a chubby cornball clad in sandals and socks, but his quirks and imperfections make him flawless in Serpent’s eyes. “Peace to your daddy that made you so fine,” he exults, “Peace to the jeans that’s hugging your behind.” (The barebones stomp-clap rhythm and lush harmonies of this particular number are where the influence of ‘90s R&B is most apparent.) He flirts with sensitive “Amir” over a hypnotic guitar line and feathery organ, longing to learn everything about the guy’s family, where he grew up, all his dumb jokes. His simple wish for closeness—to feel “Derrick’s Beard” brush against his skin—becomes one of the record’s loveliest, most moving sonic diversions.
And it’s not just romantic love that our hero’s enjoying. He’s more than content to just hang with his pals and relish the little moments they share: “Our fascination with Prosecco/The silly face you make when I say “Hello”/I never understood deep deep breaths/‘Til you came around and you just changed the way I laughed.” For a man in his thirties, true friendships are few and far-between, and Serpent can scarcely believe his good fortune. The breezy African polyrhythms of “Fellowship,” co-produced by Sampha and Lil Silva, go down like a fine wine—an ideal comedown from the emotional intensity of the previous ten tracks.
Gorgeous, sexy and constantly surprising, Deacon is the most wonderful and rewarding glimpse into Josiah Wise’s mind we’ve had the privilege to receive. Would that falling in love were always as beautiful and uncomplicated as serpentwithfeet makes it feel.