There are a lot of people who want Willis Earl Beal to be someone he’s not. It’s a tempting proposition. After all, the kid has pipes that immediately bring legends to mind; it’s tough not to wonder what it would sound like if Beal wrapped his hands around Sam Cooke and Otis Redding standards. We’ve caught brief glimpses – this YouTube video, a couple of songs on his debut album Acousmatic Sorcery – but those glimpses will have to suffice. “Some people have talked to me and have wanted me to be a neo-soul artist,” Beal told Pigeons and Planes. “Nothing against neo-soul, but that’s just not what I want to do.”
Rather than the next Sam or Otis, Willis is a creature all his own. Acousmatic Sorcery is less a collection of songs and more an experiment in sound-making, as if Beal walks to and fro, picking up instruments and figuring out how to use them make something like music. The album’s lead track (at least in this iteration, since the tracks have been shuffled in their various release forms) is “Nepenenoyka,” named after the Belarusian lap harp that sounds its central melody. The thin, tinny notes are discordant and out of tune; Jandek, one of Beal’s most-cited influences, immediately jumps to mind.
“I don’t really know how it’s played,” Beal admitted in a must-read interview with GQ. “It came with a lot of suggestions for songs, and I didn’t have the patience to look at it or read the directions. I just got a toothpick or whatever I could find and just went up and down on it, and pre-recorded a lot of different patterns and overdubs until I got something I thought was interesting.” The track is a big, bright flag telling listeners that what they’re about to hear is probably not what they expected.
[Now is the point in the review that I should probably tell you a little bit about Willis Earl Beal’s backstory, in case you declined to read his GQ interview. Ahem. He hails from Chicago, where he left posters bearing his address and phone number proclaiming, “My name is Willis Earl Beal. Write to me and I will make you a drawing. Call me and I will sing you a song.” His eccentricities – art, prose, music – grabbed the attention of Found Magazine, which put another of his posters on the cover; “Greetings Ladies: My name is Willis Earl Beal. I am a good person. I am employed. I pay rent for a studio apartment living space. I dwell alone. I heavily favor the music of Norah Jones.” Prior to his discovery, Beal joined (and then left) the army, held odd jobs, and spent some time being homeless. Oh, and he auditioned for X Factor. Like I said, you should read the interview.]
The album’s second track, “Take Me Away,” is the closest Beal gets to the much-desired soulful yawp, with the sort of Southern porch mmhmmm background and repetition. Beal snarls and hollers his way over a steady, clunking percussion, appealing to the Lord and asking if you believe. Elsewhere, where the lyrical content provides more depth, his vocals are more reserved. On one of the album’s most lyrically arresting tracks, “Evening’s Kiss,” Beal contemplates loneliness. Occasionally he falls into cliché – “watching rain fall from a dim café” – but elsewhere he’s more effectively evocative. “These phantasm women got me swimming through the sea/Apprehension steady creeping, whirlpool is pulling me,” he sings, and the song’s mood amplifies his sentiments.
There’s something confessional about these tracks – even the recording fidelity conveys a deeply private feeling, as if Beal recorded them alone in a room and we’re the first to hear the fruit of his labor. If legend is to be believed – and the veracity of Beal’s outlandish backstory seems to be proven – much of the album was recorded on a cassette karaoke machine. On the back of the album’s booklet he writes: “This record was recorded on bad equipment. I like it this way. I hope you do too.”
The songs haven’t been worked-reworked-overworked until all the kinks are smoothed out. Instead they are rough and full of blemishes – early morning songs before they’ve put their make-up on. It’s a look that suits Beal and his voice, beautiful in its rawness. Of course, it’s also often jarring, and likely far from what most listeners anticipated. Songs like “Away My Silent Lover” and “Sambo Joe From The Rainbow” are more Tom Waits than Howlin’ Wolf, though Beal is still somewhere between the two.
Listening to Acousmatic Sorcery, I’m reminded of the demos TV on the Radio progenitors Tunde Adebimpe and David Sitek released in the collection OK Calculator. Beal’s voice sometimes takes on Adebimpe’s affectations, but the kindred feeling comes more from the lo-fi production and the idea that fantastic ideas are held within these songs. Tracks like “Cosmic Queries,” “Swing On Low,” and the rap-leaning “Ghost Robot” suggest that Beal is still experimenting and nailing down his sound. OK Calculator hardly predicted TV on the Radio’s exemplary string of albums, but it was obvious the group had a varied set of talents and a knack for finding nuggets. With Beal, I get the feeling that listening to the experimentation is just as important as arriving at a final destination; the kid wants a cult following, and he’s going to find it.
Willis Earl Beal is something special, the likes of whom we rarely see in this world of pre-processed music stars. He’s searching for something new, something we haven’t heard thousands of times before, and he’s doing it in a very public, visible way. Whether he successfully adapts his eccentricity and finds a home, like Jandek or Waits or even more mainstream acts like Deerhunter and of Montreal, remains to be seen. He could fade into oblivion or be guided into neo soul before we get to see Acousmatic Sorcery’s tinkering run its course. But for now, it’s fascinating.
“When you’re singing and you’re there and you’re present in the moment, that’s when everything makes sense,” Beal told the camera at X Factor. “But off the stage, it’s just kind of chaotic.” On record, he strives to marry those two feelings – chaotic, discordant experimentation and legitimate musical chops. He hasn’t quite hit the right balance, not yet, but he’s barking up a lot of exhilarating trees.
Listen to ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’ in its entirety here.