There’s a poetry to serpentwithfeet calling his debut album soil. Soil is the foundation of life on this planet; where seeds gestate, take root and eventually burst forth. Whilst Josiah Wise first appeared as serpentwithfeet in 2016 his period of gestation has been more prolonged than that. At the age of eleven Wise was singing with the Maryland State Boys Choir, kickstarting a love affair with vocal performance that would see him honing his voice with dreams of becoming a classically trained opera singer.

Whilst Wise’s journey diverted from the path he originally envisioned for himself, his transformation into serpentwithfeet and the release of soil is borne from the same passion and determination that drove him as a young man. His musical training and mastery meanwhile has allowed him to push the boundaries of what vocal performance can be, with soil showcasing the breadth of Wise's talent as a singer and artist. More so, from its opening moments to its last, soil is a captivating experience that is intimate and ecstatic in equal measure.

That intimacy starts with ‘whisper’, a track that seems to address the listener directly as serpentwithfeet sings a hushed mantra over an instrumental that gradually builds from a simple arpeggio to a chorus of male voices. Whilst much of the album deals in personal experience, ‘whisper’ is one of the few songs that seems to directly address the audience, offering support and understanding that transforms into a proclamation of love.

Despite his background in more classical styles of music, serpentwithfeet’s debut embraces a range of styles - drawing particularly from a rich vein of vocal styles that includes choral music, gospel, pop, soul and r’n’b. These styles are not just reflected in serpentwithfeet’s vocal delivery but also the instrumental choices. ‘wrong tree’, as an example, wraps gospel motifs in a more modern aesthetic, with electric organ and hand claps underscoring a simple lyrical chant that seems to be crafted to sing along to.

If there is a single musical motif that runs throughout soil it’s the use of simple, sing-along choruses. This is most likely as a result of Wise's experiences as a choir boy, but it also helps to highlight the ecstatic nature of many of these songs - something that serpentwithfeet often subverts. In ‘wrong tree’ the chorus takes on a mocking, playground tone as Wise finds his love unrequited. ‘cherubim’, which blurs the line between religious and sexual devotion is another example of how through performance and subversion serpentwithfeet tells a story. The choir of voices that delivers the chorus in an almost monosyllabic fashion heightens a sense of passion and devotion which serves as a counterpoint to the verse’s lyrics. Here that devotion seems to resemble something darker, reflected in the oppressive electronic instrumental and the pitch-shifted backing vocals.

The dark, moody electronica of soil reaches its peak at ‘waft’ a song that almost serves as a narrative counterpoint to the earlier ‘fragrant’. Both reference the scent of a lover with ‘fragrant’ focusing on an ex-lover’s scent and serpentwithfeet’s attempts to recapture that, whilst ‘waft’ describing the artist catching the scent of someone new and falling hopelessly, obsessively in love with them. In essence restarting the cycle that led to the events of ‘fragrant’. This inevitability is perhaps why ‘waft’ leans so heavily on a slow, methodical build up, that rather than expressing the joy of new love showcases a rising tension, with lumbering percussion and a emotionally wrought vocal performance.

soil is an album that delves into the dirt of passion, be that artistic, romantic or religious. For every moment of ecstatic energy there’s another equal moment of debilitating disappointment, for every igniting of love, there’s wilting relationships. It’s a deeply personal album, but one that is often relatable. “Can I make your favourite meal before you move out?”, Wise sings on ‘seedless’. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve wanted to prolong a relationship even though we know it’s over. soil recognises these toxic behaviours and gives them form. Perhaps that’s why ‘whisper’ is such an important opening. Despite the extremes (both positive and negative) that lie in wait, there are others who have taken similar paths and emerged on the other side anew.