- The Magazine
For all we romanticize unfettered artistic freedom, much less is said about the power of boundaries. Generations of artists have known that some of the most novel, interesting, and profound work has power and resonance not in spite of, but exactly because of the constraints it was done under. With this in mind serpentwithfeet set himself a challenge for his second album that would be unusual in most genres, let alone R&B — to make an album free from heartbreak and grief.
On the surface, that might seem like a bold experiment for an artist who, up until now, has been known for songs that have often amounted to raw, powerful yet meticulously crafted outpourings of grief and longing. But serpentwithfeet, a particularly gifted channeler of inner experience, has pulled it off with Deacon (★★★★★), a vision of queer, Black love that is even more deeply affecting for its tenderness.
Serpentwithfeet’s powerful and versatile choir-honed voice, his seamless blending of gospel and R&B, and his unwavering focus on gentle sensuality all make Deacon an enjoyable and accessible album. But the smooth, chilled-out calmness of its production belies the complexity in serpent’s particularly expansive vision of queer joy. Tracks like “Wood Boy” and “Same Size Shoe” are full of both poignancy and whimsy. It’s hard not to hear the grin on his face as he repeats the line, “Me and my boo wear the same size shoe,” or the relief as he reflects in “Fellowship,” “I’m spending less time worrying/and more time recounting the love.”
As preoccupied as he is with happiness and contentment, serpentwithfeet cannot (or more likely, chooses not to) ignore the attendant angsts that often accompany them. Sometimes this manifests itself as the yearning that accompanies a new or nascent love, expressed in the longing fixation on a particular physical feature so deftly captured in “Derrick’s Beard.” Elsewhere, worry and dread creep into his soundscape, compelling him to warn against unlucky behavior in the dramatic “Sailor’s Superstition,” lest something happen to make his dream romance fall apart.
Dreaminess aside, Deacon is just as much a product of the material world. Serpent cites his move from New York to L.A. as a major inspiration behind the album, but L.A. is not the only city that receives a romantic treatment on Deacon. Serpent’s skill for capturing the vibe of a place comes through in “Malik” and “Amir,” a pair of back-to-back songs reminiscing on two romances in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., respectively. In theory, the warm, generous, and charmingly corny Malik, and the coy, compelling Amir could be from anywhere, but in serpentwithfeet’s mind, they become avatars for their respective cities. Where, he pointedly asks, does the city end and the person begin, and is it even possible to unlink someone’s image in our mind from the time and place we found them in?
With this album, serpentwithfeet has once again set out to map the contours of queer experience, “not only imagining, but exploring a world wherein Black love is paramount.” Even that turns out to be a bit of an understatement for what he achieves on Deacon. The artist conjures a complex and multifaceted emotional world that can only be experienced through love and intimacy, expertly breathing life into it and bringing us along on that journey as only he can.
Deacon is available for streaming and purchase on Friday, March 26 on all platforms.
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