Around the time that The Life Of Pablo and Coloring Book dropped, online music media began touting the advent of a neo-gospel revival, citing the direct influence of gospel in the production style and lyrical testimonials in the aforementioned albums. The answer to whether or not spirituality is present in contemporary music is a non-starter; the question, rather, is how a contemporary pop spirituality might look.
serpentwithfeet — the project from Baltimore-bred, New York City-based artist Josiah Wise, a staple in New York’s queer music scene — is exhaustively spiritual in content, from its original sin-referent moniker to its frothy vocal testimonials and paganistic lyrical symbolism. Yet “God” is never named, not as a Father nor as a Ghost; rather Wise addresses an unnamed “you” throughout blisters, a fluid placeholder for the recombinant body of a lover, a child, a kindred, an other-becoming-self, a natural phenomena. Sonically, Wise’s productions (assisted by the dark sorcery of Tri Angle labelmate The Haxan Cloak) are as paganistic as his lyrics, constituting an irreducible mesh of deterritorial post-club refuse and heavily contextualized, historicized generic tropes from gospel, R&B, and classical. The narrator testifies atop these modes as from beyond the psychic gulf of a relationship-seeded trauma; at other times, they speak as from within it or before it. This play of narrative tense and slippage of roles, in a tandem gesture to the record’s merger of historicized genre performance with ahistorical “noise,” scaffolds the skeleton of a precarious spirituality, paradoxically embodied in the competing impulses of self-preservation and yearning for dissolution into the psyche of an other.
Production advances in the vein of what Tiny Mix Tapes’s Matthew Phillips called the Neo-Futurist aesthetic reframe percussive sounds less as fixed elements in a pattern evincing the shape of “drum kit” or “drum pad” and more as a series of hitherto unidentifiable shapes merging and recombining across a spatial plane. Snares impact with infographicality, not as a stick on a skin or as a finger on a pad, but as the just-now piquing outlines of a volatile ecosystem under observation. Blistering merges eco-spatial percussive terrain, orchestrated with swells of wet synthetic string and rattling, arrhythmic industrial noise, with the elliptical narrative playing out in Wise’s classically-trained, gospel-style testimonials and electro-baroque instrumentation. No single element or mode here is transcendent; disparate spiritual models are “flickering, unraveling” as percussive schisms impact and then retreat to a looming vantage point, a silent watchful presence that affirms the performativity of performance itself.
When the opening titular track breaks down into a mournful, descending vocal refrain, wordless atop the stomp and clap of human bodies, it evinces the distinct poignant sweetness of human catharsis, of ongoing survival. Yet this moment does not exist merely for itself; it plays in the eye of an Other, a godlike machination beyond our ability to control or perceive in full. The track’s extended coda section, buoyed by the spatialized whirr of an unidentified metallic engine, posits the traditionally Christ-attributed power of “forgiveness” as a natural force acting in-and-through-itself: “The darkening of the leaves has come/ Forgiveness has not forgiven it.”
Similarly, the frail symbiosis that frames “flickering” threatens to decay and dissolve: “I’m starting to feel the cord between us two is made of gossamer.” The track’s orchestration uncomplicates, as the narrator’s devotional (and ambiguously spirituo-romantic) resolve comes into focus, culminating in a coda section that calls up generic tropes of full-throated, arms-aloft gospel testimony, but that Wise undermines with the ambiguity of the addressee: “My heart is strong/ My will as strong/ Take this body as yours/ Don’t let me doubt you/ I offer myself to you/ Take what I give you.” Lover and Almighty collapse wholly into the same anonymous gaze whose ultimate role is to construct the identity of the subject, our narrator, whose foil is the narrator’s own straining gaze, which circles back to the beginning of the track: “My light is flickering/ I can’t see much of you.”
This devotion to a scarce Other is more directly problematized on the pop-centerpiece of the record “four ethers,” in itself a gorgeous, gently crescendo’ing song about loving someone who can’t love themselves, wherein Wise develops the lyrical theme of interdependent, collapsing bodies: “Babe/ It’s cool with me that you want to die/ And I’m not gonna stop you if you try/ But the hole in my belly has started growing.” The track impacts with magnified, sometimes hilarious poignancy for how the typically magniloquent address of the narrator turns conversational, vulnerable, and unassuming, in itself the practice of a spiritual humility: “Your name is about as easy to remember as the four ethers/ And who the hell knows the four ethers? / But your pain is about as easy to feel as the four ethers/ And who can do without the four ethers?” Deflated under the duress of a godlike other who seeks nothing but oblivion, the narrator surrenders to their own lack of ability to name what is elemental, stripping their demands down, fittingly, to an elemental level: “You’ve got to show me yourself.”
blisters is a shadowbox of foregrounds and backgrounds, plainspoken address versus skyward invocation, the injunction of intersecting folk performance styles (spiritual, musical theater, pop R&B) into the sparring tectonic movements of neophytic hyperobjects. Insofar as “catharsis” is a human metric for the sublimation of trauma, blisters has that, yet its cyclical theme of “forgiveness” is maybe of greater import. By the time penultimate track “penance” dissolves into the ruminative finale of “redemption,” ironically titled because it speaks as from beyond the eclipse of the trauma that blisters encapsulates, it’s clear that transcendence via dissolution into the gaze of an other is a myth no longer worth buying into, only viable in the same stroke as erasure and oblivion. If blisters originate from the friction of like surfaces, the sores of bodies unsuccessfully merging, then they are all we are left with at the close of the record:
“I thought there was redemption in the four ethers/ Somehow I thought the sweet perfume of our truths rotting inside your belly could free me/ If I could just anoint my body with this perfume/ This perfume will surely save me/ The thing that sours in your belly will surely save me, surely/ But your name is impossible to know.”