Review: Willis Earl Beal - Acousmatic Sorcery
The story of Willis Earl Beal has reached almost mythic proportions. His sort of American-dream-catch-all life has so far included service in the armed forces, homelessness, a slew of minimum-wage jobs, an appearance on the X-Factor, and eventually getting signed to XL. He’s a musician, a visual artist, and a novelist. There’s so much more, but if you don’t know it by now, you might as well check out the interview he did with GQ last month. Or you can call him and ask him yourself—his number is posted right on his website.
It’s one thing to understand Beal’s story, but it’s another to see it in action. The first thing that hits you when you see Beal on stage is the utter weirdness of it all. Here’s this crazy-jacked dude standing all alone on stage in a tiny German club. He’s rocking fashionable sunglasses, black leather gloves, and jeans that George Michael would be jealous of. His shirt, also two sizes too small, bears the same insignia as the tattoo on his right forearm, and, as we’ll soon discover, the massive flag that Beal will frequently drape himself in. (Also, just for good measure, the badge appears on his website.) If you feel like you’re getting incepted right now, fear not; it’s possible that we mere mortals are just not able to comprehend on his level.
Don’t give up though—everything comes together when Beal booms the first note of the set. All of a sudden, the absurdity melts away. Beal stops being a scene and starts becoming a musician. His voice is soulful and stunning, and completely different from how he sounds on “Evening’s Kiss”, the first single off the album. He’s constantly filling in the breaks, dancing and talking, remaining dynamic at all times. After his a capella opener, he’s backed only by a reel-to-reel tape recorder and, on “Evening’s Kiss”, a guitar that he strums with the toothpick he’s held in his mouth for the entire show. (“You start fucking around with the indie music scene," he admits, "they make you hold a guitar.”) Beal is a straight-up entertainer, a “sci-fi Otis Redding”.
Acousmatic Sorcery, Beal’s first release, entertains in a totally different way. It’s an iteration of the demo he made while living in Albuquerque, which he recorded with pawnshop instruments and the cheapest microphone he could find. It definitely shows—the album is the definition of lo-fi, where tape clicks, pops, and hissing are all audible. The album is also lo-fi in a Daniel Johnston/Cody Chesnutt sort of way, in that the songs are very barebones. I’d be inclined say that the album is stripped down to the bare minimum, but “stripped down” isn’t the right phrase. The songs are incredibly organic; a more apt description is that they are built from the ground up. There’s just enough in there so that they can exist as fully functioning entities in the musical universe. Anything more would be overkill.
That’s not to say that the songs are light and easy—on the contrary, the album is challenging, disorienting, and disjointed. But that’s why it’s so good. The album excites through and through, offering the strange effects of “Nepenenoyka” and “Bright Copper Noon”; the rootsy and soulful blues of “Take Me Away”; the polyrhythmic, deranged hip hop stylings of “Ghost Robot” and “Swing on Low”; and the beautifully melodic “Evening’s Kiss” and “Monotony”.
Acousmatic Sorcery is an album that requires multiple listens just so you can get your bearings and enjoy it, and ten listens later, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly is happening. But, just like Beal, it forces you to get on its level and reckon with it on its own terms—and that’s where the magic lies.
By Alex Kapelman