Willis Earl Beal - Acousmatic Sorcery

A brave statement from an artist totally unencumbered by typical restrictions.

Label: XL Recordings

Rating: 8

Those of you who were paying attention last year may have noticed a curious debate open up around notions of authenticity in music, mainly in response to scorn poured on both Lana Del Rey and Kreayshawn. It seemed that great swathes of music aficionados required ‘soul’ from artists, some genuine representation of their beliefs and experiences, hopes and dreams, all wrapped up in an honesty devoid of commercial considerations – a test that LDR was often deemed to have failed. It’s an interesting debate, not least because it shifts discussion away from any actual music and onto disingenuous concepts like identity, taste, and subjectivity, all of which are useful to bear in mind when considering Willis Earl Beal.
 
Part of the problem he faces is that you’re far more likely to have been slapped in the face by his colourful backstory, already taking up acres of print, than read any kind of critique about his music. For the uninitiated, it runs thus: poor man from Chicago’s South Side surreptitiously discovers music and finds solace as a wandering troubadour, a 21st Century drifter taking lo-fi to extremes. If that sounds like a marketing department’s wet dream, that’s pretty much because it is – hell, you can even call him up and have him sing you a song – and the knives are already out amongst those who smell a rat. Well, he did also appear on US X Factor. All in all, it’s been made pretty easy to form an opinion before you even engage your ears.
 
So, what happens when you do? Be prepared for a visceral punch to the gut, an outpouring of emotion from a troubled soul that at times is stripped back to just a primitive howl. Condensed from the 17 tracks he self-released with Found Magazine, the order may have been altered but very little else has, static and hiss still omnipresent as he claws away at a battered guitar and pots and pans. Pre-rock and Delta blues are obvious influences from the moment his begins hollering ‘Oh Lord, Oh Lord’ on the gospel tinged ‘Take Me Away’, but Beal is clearly a musical magpie, content to cherry pick whatever takes his fancy. This scattergun approach is both blessing and curse – at it’s best giving us the sweet, soulful innocence of ‘Evening’s Kiss’ and ‘Monotony’, at it’s worst the clanging, awkward ‘Ghost Robot’, which owes more to noise pop than the likes of Howlin’ Wolf. He even doff’s his cap to rap on ‘Swing On Low’, albeit the spoken word version more readily associated with Subterranean Homesick Blues than Gz and Hustlers.
 
Biblical language is scattered throughout, a possible hangover from his days living rough in the South, and his woozy baritone on ‘Cosmic Queries’ conjures images of a fallen preacher as he solemnly intones ‘We are heroes, we are fiends / In this field of dreams.’ Such vocal flexibility serves early notice that the real star here is his voice: by turns raw, gruff, paper light and sugar sweet. It’s hard to equate the lullaby crooning on ‘Samba Joe From The Rainbow’ with the demented devil driven to the brink that inhabits ‘Angel Chorus’, but he claims his bluesy tones are ‘just the voice I sing in.’ He also claims that the lo-fi production, far from being an affectation, is simply because ‘I don’t know how to play guitar. I don’t know how to do anything. I look at all things as tools’ and that ‘If I could make an expensive pop record, I wouldn’t be sitting here now discussing it, I would have done it’ (via The Guardian).
 
Questions of studio time aside, ‘Sorcery’ is at its best shining a light on Beal’s inner turmoil and life’s painful underbelly. There’s plenty of darkness here – ‘Ask me how I’m feeling, well I’m full of shit and doubt / Ask me who I’m with, and I’ll tell you I’m without’ – and it lends everything a tense, uneasy air, the voyeuristic nausea of watching a man at the very end of his tether. Perhaps he’s just as tired of scraping a living as the rest of us, but recent mutterings about suicide (‘If I could just snap my fingers and disappear, I would’) mask a wry humour – ‘Wall Street investors / Sanctimonious confessors!’ – concerning a thoroughly contemporary malaise.
 
A modern day beat poet for the disenfranchised then? He’s already been pigeonholed with the likes of Cold Specks, Jandek, and, yes, Tom Waits – the latter coming from himself – as a pioneer of a new, back-to-the-roots type music, the antithesis of what has come to be known as ‘post-internet’. It is indeed a throwback, and it’s not easy to listen to, but consider it a bold, brave statement from an artist totally unencumbered by typical restrictions or thoughts as to how it will be received. You’ll either love it or hate it but, ignore the buzz, take it on it’s own merits, and you might very well be rewarded.