Listening to serpentwithfeet has always felt like a religious experience. As someone who has hardly spent any time in houses of worship — let alone been raised in the Pentecostal church and choir, like the music’s creator — serpentwithfeet’s ability to layer harmonies, gospel and R&B influences doesn’t bring to mind a specific memory, but creates an unearthly cocoon that makes me long for a higher power to call out to. The church’s influence has been part of the texture of all of serpentwithfeet’s prior releases, but on his second full-length album, he borrows religious language to name it: DEACON.
For the uninitiated, a deacon is a church leader, and at its root, means someone who serves others. Although serpentwithfeet is not explicitly claiming this role, it inevitably shapes our perception of this album; DEACON is a salve for uncertain times, with serpentwithfeet leading listeners through a lighter, yet no less emotional, journey than his previous work.
While his debut full-length, soil, is best listened to in the dark, preferably on the floor alone, DEACON can soundtrack stepping out into the sunshine, hand-in-hand with a lover. There is a euphoria embedded in this album that even the happiest moments on soil can’t quite touch. The visuals so far, videos for “Same Size Shoe” and “Fellowship,” along with a lyric video for NAO-collaboration “Heart Storm,” echo these themes of light and companionship: serpentwithfeet is always with a partner, often literally frolicking in the sun, dancing, snuggling.
This change from dwelling on grief and pain to exulting joy and love may seem to some like an unexpected shift, but serpentwithfeet has been open and clear about this emotional journey within himself. He told Huck Magazine in July 2020: “As a Black, gay person, I am constantly grieving. I don’t think that I’ve ever not been in grieving. But it doesn’t mean my life isn’t filled with joy.” Almost as if a minute had passed, rather than a year, he told the New York Times this month: “I didn’t want to go down in history as the sad boy, because I’ve just experienced so much joy.” DEACON is not some incidental turn toward happiness, but a premeditated shift in focus.
The production, still choral and sweeping but less gritty and heavy, lends itself to the tone shift from soil. serpenwithfeet’s 2020 EP, Apparition, with its more electronic sonics and bigger production, like soil, serves as a seamless bridge between the releases. DEACON is undeniably a serpentwithfeet album, maintaining the characteristic angelic harmonies and complex layers of arrangements, but is a little less genre-less than his previous work, finding more of a foothold in R&B.
Every track is a love song of sorts, whether romantic (“Same Size Shoe”) or platonic (“Fellowship”). The three tracks named after specific Black men (“Malik,” “Amir” and “Derrick’s Beard”) are imagined incidences of intimacy — pure and simple. From the wholesome (“Blessed is the man who wears socks with his sandals” on “Malik”) to the sexually explicit (all of “Wood Boy,” where sex is powerful enough to make serpentwithfeet forget his own name), serpentwithfeet shows his love for Black men across contexts and relationships.
The miracle of connection embraced on DEACON is even more apparent amid a pandemic in which most of us have been deeply lacking in intimacy. serpentwithfeet has given us a refuge in these 11 tracks, a place where Black gay love rules all, there are no breakup songs and we tell our friends how much we love them.