Experimental artist Serpentwithfeet has a knack for making sense of heartbreak. 2016’s debut EP ‘Blisters’ set yearning to agitated orchestration and silk-spun chamber pop, while debut album ‘Soil’ dug deeper still. The devastating ‘Slow Syrup’ charted a last-ditch attempt to cling onto an extinguished relationship, while ‘Seedless’ cooked up one last favourite meal before an ex moved out. Though this was an album about endings, the clouds occasionally cleared to show a brief flicker of new love waiting on the other side. “I’ll get over it soon, but right now – right now I’m gonna moan and groan,” Serpent sang on ‘Wrong Tree’, “rock myself to peace and moan and groan”.
In the years since ‘Soil’, Baltimore-born Serpentwithfeet relocated across the US, swapping the Big Apple for sprawling and relentlessly sunny Los Angeles. Most of his ghosts stayed back in New York, and on last year’s ‘Apparition’ EP, Serpent sang of gradually breaking free from them. “Life’s gotta get easier,” he sang on ‘A Comma’ – it sounds like a promise, but really it’s a plea. “No heavy hearts in my next year.”
And all these healing roads lead to ‘DEACON’ – an album that softens the more uneasy edges of Serpentwithfeet’s earlier releases and celebrates the joy of Black gay love instead. The glimmering ‘Same Shoe Size’ is a warm exploration of finding love with a Black man who walks through the same world as Serpentwithfeet, their identically sized soles a metaphor for a shared understanding. The snappily percussive ‘Amir’ and piano-adorned ‘Derrick’s Beard’ and ‘Malik’ each take their names from “men from my imagination,” Serpent told The New York Times – they toy with how it might feel to dive into lust with the safety barriers taken down.
Frequently, ‘DEACON’ makes masterful use of musical restraint, nodding in the direction of ‘90s and early ’00S R&B classics without simply rehashing their old tricks. There’s an expressive hint of the Philly neo-soul artist Bilal in Serpent’s feeling-filled vocal; a dash of Brandy’s ‘Never Say No’ and Janet Jackson’s ‘The Velvet Rope’ in the smooth, warm production. In featured artists Sampha, Lil Silva and Nao, Serpentwithfeet finds three collaborators with an equally skillful grasp of subtlety. And as a storyteller, he has a skill for specificity: using small, everyday details to paint a picture that feels vivid and surprising. “He never played football but look at how he holds me,” he sings on ‘Hyacinth’, “he never needed silverware, but I’m his little spoon”.
Serpentwithfeet’s warmest album yet, ‘DEACON’ is like a kind of blossoming – the result of meticulously excavating through heartbreak, and hitting on the joy waiting beneath.
Release date: March 26
Release label: Secretly Canadian