A vividly emotional debut LP from the experimental pop artist.
The change in tone and arrangement partly comes down to Wise's new team of co-producers: Clams Casino, Paul Epworth, mmph and Katie Gately, a techno artist who, like Wise, has released music on Tri Angle. The album's poppy, immaculately layered vocal production may owe something to Epworth, but Gately makes the biggest impression. (She produced five of the 11 tracks.) Gately is skilled at melting down and repurposing sounds; on soil, she builds bubbling beds of music out of what sounds like gravel, clay, wind, brass and bits of voice. The production lets Wise's songs breathe.
Wise's introspections on soil feel more streamlined. What might have felt overdramatic on blisters becomes fodder for faint humour and irony, like on "Messy," where he pokes fun at his own issues. He wonders aloud if his partner "like[s] the challenge of cruel men." On "Seedless," with a fantastically wonky Clams Casino beat that blooms into a gorgeous chorus, he sings, pathetically yet manically, "Can I make your favourite meal before you move out?" before promising to be less "suffocating" if his ex will take him back. Wise's delivery drips with self-deception.
His songs build in intensity from a whisper to a chorus, which comes from one of Wise's most obvious influences. Even at its darkest points, the LP burns with the uplift and determination of gospel, which has been an integral part of Wise's world. (He joined a church choir at six years old.) Each song reads like a devotional to a lover with Wise in different levels of prostration. "I get to devote my life to him," he sings in front of a choir of his own voices on "Cherubim," the album's most overtly religious song, which turns romantic obsession into something as fervent as a baptist preacher's sermon.
Wise tries to get closer to his ex-boyfriend on "Fragrant" by sleeping with all that person's ex-lovers, yearning for a higher power and resorting to earthly vices to get there. This conceit—"Since you won't come around / I'll enjoy this illegal love"—could be directed at a person or a higher being, channeling the language of devotion into a song that turns heartbreak into twisted revenge. Each song explores a different and sometimes jarring form of intimacy, often expressed through bluntly sexual terms. "Waft" is an ode to body odor. "Slow Syrup" has exactly the entendres you might expect from the title ("I need the world to end inside of me"). His music is unflinching in its sexual directness, its neuroses, its self-examination and even Wise's unconventional voice.
Being queer is an inherently confusing, self-questioning experience, and Wise writes love songs in the language of queer dynamics—of crippling self-doubt, worship, bodily confusion and promiscuous sex—then delivers them with conviction. "I'm annoyed with clothes today / I'd rather swaddle myself in sorrow today," he sings on "Mourning Song." "I don't want to be small small sad / I want to be big big sad / I want to make a pageant of my grief." They're words that could sound ridiculous in the mouth of anyone else, but they're gripping in Wise's, making theatre out of his deepest and most vulnerable thoughts. serpentwithfeet is not a project that deals in restraint, but it's the mix of melodrama and newfound control that makes soil a great record.