Album Review: Willis Earl Beal - Acousmatic Sorcery

Filed under: Reviews

Willis Earl Beal is an unfolding enigma. Every single line of his biography is fascinating. Beal's website simply displays his address and phone number. He offers to trade drawings in exchange for letters and sing to anyone who calls. This was inspired by the Chicago-native's homeless phase. During this time, he left CD-Rs of his songs all over his hometown. These were typically accompanied by fliers encouraging strangers to phone him. At 27-years old, Beal auditioned for the X-Factor and successfully made it past the first round. As an unknown, he signed to XL Recordings at the dawning of 2012. And on April 2nd, his debut album, Acousmatic Sorcery, surfaced to add to the confusion.

As a collection of home-recordings from 2010 and 2011, there is no polish on these tracks. They are a degree more dynamic than Daniel Johnston's 1980s catalog. Add a layer of Jandek-inspired dissonance and you have a record that's equal parts enduring and endearing. That's not to say the songwriting is lacking. On the contrary, it's the best part of the album.

First single "Evening's Kiss" shares an intimate warmth that only lo-fi can provide. The buzzing swipe of guitar-strings and gentle guiding vocals give it a sincere and haunting quality. Beal even delivers a line about feeling "cool, catatonic without smoking that chronic" without a shred of irony. "Monotony", "Sambo Joe from the Rainbow" and "Away My Silent Lover" all fall in the same vein. The minimalist elements of the arrangements feel fuller when filtered through flimsier equipment.

Rather than stick to a distinct mode, Acousmatic Sorcery is littered with quirky stylistic changes. "Take Me Away" has Beal belting and doing his best Tom Waits impression. The clattering, peaking percussion is punched up with overdubs of monotonous moans. On "Swing On Low", he rapid-fires playfully over what sounds like carnival music and clanking bottles. Meanwhile, the hip-hop-inspired "Ghost Robot" is a flurry of crunchy drums and mechanical acoustic guitar. Beal's rhymes resemble chants more than the flow of a twenty-first century emcee. There is enough variety that this album could lead his career down a number of paths.

Not every experiment on Acousmatic Sorcery is equally intriguing. Opener "Nepenenoyka" and "Bright Copper Noon" both feature a frustratingly loud music box. The latter has Beal actually attempting to compete with the cutting chimes. Given the soothing modesty of the songs sandwiching it, the transition is unsettling.

Because the songs are presented like demos, there is a lack of cohesiveness to the album. The genre-hopping between all eleven tracks is a tad exhausting. While his approach can be charming, Willis Earl Beal has clearly deprived listeners of his ideal sound. Acousmatic Sorcery is unfortunately nothing more than a blueprint. As live footage surfaces, the grandeur of the charismatic oddball overwhelms the modest mumblings of this record. Rather than play like a debut, it's already a time capsule.

Willis Earl Beal's future could be extremely bright. He has the talent and eccentric artistic temperament to leave his impression as an outsider artist. However, Acousmatic Sorcery doesn't offer any insight into where he's headed. It's just an out-of-focus snapshot of where he came from.

Tags: Willis Earl Beal, XL Recordings, Acousmatic Sorcery, Lo-Fi, Soul, Evening's Kiss, Hot Charity, Chicago

Related Posts

Comments Posted ()

SBM on Social Media on Facebook on Twitter on Instagram on YouTube