As the anxieties of real life have mounted for even the most privileged people, the assumption that profound art must be dark and downbeat has changed. Twenty years ago, television had to prove its merit as an art form by bringing the anti-hero into our living rooms. But now, feelgood sitcoms like “Ted Lasso” and “Schitt’s Creek” are among the most acclaimed TV shows. Common notions of “the art we need now” have changed to something edgy and directly topical to something that, at worst, can comfort us at the end of a stressful day and, at best, can help us picture a world that is less cruel and violent. In a word, “wholesome.”
“DEACON,” the second album by out gay R&B singer serpentwithfeet, is extremely wholesome. It closes with the chorus “My friends, my friends/I’m thankful for the love I share with my friends.” The audible presence of British singer Sampha, who produced it with Lil Silva, singing along with serpentwithfeet on the song puts its sentiments into practice.
Serpentwithfeet introduced himself to the world with his 2016 ep, “Blisters,” featuring himself singing over samples of classical music. His debut album, “soil,” was very good but didn’t quite deliver on that promise. “DEACON” has a far more thought-out aesthetic. He decided not to include any songs about heartbreak or any other negative emotions. “Same-Size Shoe” is inspired by his decision only to date other Black men, but it doesn’t directly address how a desire to avoid racism might have played a role in this. Instead, the tone of “DEACON” is warm and celebratory.
His early music reflected an interest in music education that turned out to be difficult to pursue. A 2018 interview with the website Loud and Quiet described the ups and downs of being a Black man trying to get classical vocal training and find a home in that world. He has since dropped the occult references used on “Blisters,” but it suggested that he needed to invent his own genre to encompass all of his influences.
To people who didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics of “Cherubim,” the most memorable song on serpentwithfeet’s first album, it might have passed for church music, but its religious imagery was used to convey his love for a man. The sense of community provided by organized religion felt somewhat missing on that album, which featured track after track of serpentwithfeet’s ornate, heavily overdubbed harmonizing with himself. If he couldn’t find a choir to support him, he would make up his own.
But in the time since its release, serpentwithfeet has befriended the mainstream R&B star Ty Dolla Sign, who sang a duet with him on the 2019 single “Receipts,” worked with him as a songwriter and backup vocalist on “Ego Death,” and gave him an interlude on his 2020 album “Featuring Ty Dolla Sign.” He has also remixed Bjork’s “Blissing Me” and has been featured on Brockhampton and Elle Goulding songs.
The videos for this album’s first two singles, “Fellowship” and “Same Size Shoe,” both celebrate Black gay love in a joyful style. “Fellowship” is so convincing as a set of home movies of a relaxed day at the beach cuddling with his partner that I was startled when serpentwithfeet begins lip-synching. Although made by different directors, the visual for “Same Size Shoe” brings that same spirit home, as serpentwithfeet and his partner make breakfast and spend the day together in their apartment. The look switches from Super-8 to VHS, but the inclusion of fake cereal brands and TV clips is the only trace of artifice.
Throughout, “DEACON” delivers on a non-toxic vision of masculinity. On “Same Size Shoe,” he sings “Won’t kiss your son if his heart ain’t big.” It never comes across as corny because the album grounds it in concrete details (although he’s OK with that, declaring “A corny man’s a healthy man” on “Malik.”) The beats reference music across Africa and its diaspora: the processed drums of “Same Size Shoe” evoke dub reggae, while “Fellowship” carries the album out with shimmering kalimbas. (“Wood Boy,” the album’s most sexually frank song, is also the only one with a hint of dissonance.) The politics of “DEACON” remain implicit, but they’re there nevertheless. Protest songs aren’t serpentwithfeet’s lane, but “DEACON” is a shining example of using music to imagine a better world.
serpentwithfeet | “DEACON” | Secretly Canadian | Released March 26th