Photo credit: Ash Kingston
Love should run so deep that it digs into the ground beneath our feet as we walk. Like God, we should both fear and worship the feeling. It consumes Josiah Wise with totality and his latest album as serpentwithfeet, called soil, is a deeply nuanced manifesto on the subject.
Gospel and queerness don’t often mesh. This project from Wise capitalizes on the contradiction—he even named himself after the Bible’s greatest villain. (Snakes were said to have feet before one tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, when they were cursed to “crawl on its belly.”) As a cultural influence, Wise has been steeped in Gospel his entire life; his mother was a choir director and his father ran a Christian bookstore. That he uses it to carry stories about his own life is unsurprising, though the direction in which he takes it sets him apart from anyone in any related genre.
You cannot separate Gospel and community; the music we associate with the term requires many vocalists and a hearty band to match. And as strange as it seems to continue to call serpentwithfeet part of the scene, the songs he writes overflow with its spirit. His declarations of love would mean nothing if they weren’t heard. Complex love demands an audience, or rather, a congregation, to share and feed off of.
Some aspects of serpentwithfeet’s devotion are more straightforward than others. On “cherubim” and “whisper,” he rejoices in the affection he has for his lover, ensuring that everyone sees their wealth of happiness. The imagery throughout the album is vivid, revealing insecurities through olfaction (“fragrant,” “waft”) and attempting compromise when love itself cannot be divided (“wrong tree,” “seedless”). Integrally, Wise never finds fault with the feeling; circumstances may create fissures in how we feel, but the emotion itself is infallible.
Though Wise is a poet for all intents and purposes, his message is far from obscure. He bleeds with desperate, aching love during every moment of soil, no matter which part of the story you wish to scrutinize. He takes a minimalist approach to the music itself, bringing on producers like Clams Casino, Paul Epworth (Adele), and Katie Gately to round out the quiet sound. He didn’t need all the extras when he performed last summer, though, with only a keyboard at his disposal onstage at the Echo. His LA performance, which happened to fall on the eve of my birthday, lifted my soul in ways that still resonate. Just watch this three-part clip of the show’s finale, “bless ur heart,” to understand.
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Best Albums of 2018
1. serpentwithfeet – soil