In 2018, the best gospel music is made by a dude with a pentagram tattooed on his forehead.
In 2018, the best gospel music is made by a dude with a pentagram tattooed on his forehead. We don’t live in the darkest timeline, just the strangest. That’s the exact sort of surrealness Josiah Wise wants to conjure anyway. His angelic debut EP, blisters, was a bizarre, otherworldly listen, Wise’s ethereal pipes acting as a grand oracle of romance. And he started this feverish nonsense as it was meant to go on.
soil is the gospel/R&B blend with enough space-age imagery and hallucinatory asides that both Young Fathers and TV on the Radio would dance in approval. Wise is also a Björk acolyte; just look at his sterling videos, filled with floating nymphs, bonkers costumes and melodrama seeping from the corners. And just like the avant-garde queen’s recent work, Wise wraps his songs around tales of love both doomed and blooming. Though Wise would never tell the story straight, it needs to be entwined with mythology and distant galaxies.
When blisters introduced his Cloudcuckoolander vibe, it only worked due to his voice. And what a voice it is. Wise’s zither coo is slathered all over the album. It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that he created the panoply of pipes before adding in any other sound. There are parts of the album where the percussion and organs feel like afterthoughts, occasionally to the detriment to the sound. Production from Paul Epworth and Clams Casino is meant to make the music as wonky as possible, all ramshackle, twitching arrangements meant to provide a better stage for the chorus of Wises on display. It’s not that Wise himself is anything short of captivating, when you’ve got the cords to slither up the notes like he does, the act itself is fascinating to hear. But the middle section of soil can seem esoteric for the sake of being off-the-wall. Wise working with dread merchant the Haxan Cloak again would have given some more thrilling tension to the proceedings, or even a Max Martin type would have given something tasty for Wise to really bite into. Hearing his shimmering lust over “Since U Been Gone” would probably set your headphones on fire from the first note. As it stands, songs like “wrong tree” and “waft” drift in and out of coherency, lost next to their more mercurial brethren.
But these are the small complaints of potential not yet completely reached. Between blisters and the best portions of soil, Wise clearly has the chops to reinvent the conventions of a genre. Opening duo “whisper” and “messy” inflect delicious anxiety into Wise’s come-ons. “whisper” has a medieval flute swirling around him before the whole thing explodes into a stomping outro that would make the Weeknd blush with envy. But that’s only to match Wise’s visions of apocalyptic love. He’s certainly been visiting Björk’s “emotional landscapes” and diving into a devoted “state of emergency.” “Rejection is shaping me again,” he cries on the cacophonous “slow syrup.” He calls all of his lover’s exes on “fragrant”: “I asked them for a kiss/ I needed to know if they still carried your fragrance.” Though “whisper” and “messy” show marvelous confidence and seduction, much of soil is riddled with insecurity, Wise desperate to find deliverance, either in the lap of a new stud or in his music. Preferably both. The bravado and nerves flee from his song on closer “bless ur heart,” serpentwithfeet’s single best accomplishment yet. It starts as a simple piano ballad, but soon unfurls into a transfigured version of all of Wise’s influences. Here is the music beamed into the pews, boy band pop and graceful R&B all morphed together as “bless ur heart” blossoms.
What’s terrifying and captivating about soil is that it’s clearly not the apex of Wise’s talents. We’re just peeking at the beginning of someone who could very way reshape a genre around his voice. He’s got gospel under his thumb, pentagram and all.