Chances are you’ll have heard Willis Earl Beal’s early single, “Evening’s Kiss.” A pretty acoustic ditty backed by a fairly dull hand-drawn video; it’s been pushed hard online. However, Beal’s backstory is stealing all the hype. He appears to be one of the first truly ‘interactive’ musicians, a young guy who will draw you a picture or sing you a song if you contact him (using the address and phone number helpfully posted on his website). Perhaps Beal is some sort of ‘Web 2.0’ trailblazer; maybe one day every Kanye follower lucky enough to earn a retweet will also receive a personalised commemorative plate and Justin Bieber will happily pop some used underwear in the post for a random YouTube viewer. His story makes undeniably good copy, but it’s pretty hard to distinguish all the marketing from the man and his music. It seems odd that it took a few weeks for this X Factor clip to do the rounds, for instance. Getting to Boot Camp is no mean feat, but is it really in keeping with the ‘outsider’ aesthetic? Perhaps XL didn’t think so.
It’s hard to ignore Beal’s beginnings: as a homeless guy in Chicago, singing was all he had; only by drawing hundreds of flyers with his phone number on did he begin to gain a reputation – so the story goes anyway. Yet Beal seems to enjoy the inevitable comparisons with other ‘outsider’ artists, proclaiming his love for confounding expectations “like a black Tom Waits.” He certainly does that on Acousmatic Sorcery, his debut LP. After grabbing the web’s attention with the more typical “Evening’s Kiss” and the soul behemoth, “Wavering Lines” (which strangely doesn’t make the cut), the album’s a radical departure. Opening with the dissonant instrumental “Nepenenoyka,” (named after a type of harp but not a good advert for it) and closing with a seven minute monologue, Beal appears determined to make his debut as inaccessible as possible. Intentionally crappy instrumentation holds the album back, stealing the focus from what is an incendiary voice – a lot of casual fans will be dumbfounded by this grating, uneasy listening.
When my housemate said Beal was “like a black Daniel Johnston” I thought it was a lazy description. Upon listening to Acousmatic Sorcery though, there’s something in it. In fact it’s a fairly outlandish compliment. The DIY recordings do have a similarly sinister lo-fi quality, sometimes interesting, mostly annoying. Having seen him perform a capella recently, it’s difficult to see why sparse, scratchy, backing tracks guide Beal’s voice throughout. Sadly, the faults don’t all lie in the recording. Take “Ghost Robot,” a simple poem delivered as a half-assed rap, half drowned out by an ominous and awful beat. It sounds amateur and ill-thought through, while the lyrics to next track “Swing On Low” are even worse. It’s easy to criticise an ‘outsider’ record for being difficult to listen to, but that’s only half the story; Beal possesses a brilliant baritone, and the fact that it rarely shines through points to some strange and pretty abysmal decision-making during the album’s writing and recording.
By ignoring the template, Beal can at times be applauded for his bravery. Indeed, there are some very good songs on offer here. “Take Me Away” evokes Tom Waits, for example, with an incessant thump backing the strongest vocal performance on the record – growling and grunting across its three minutes. It’s no mean feat to claw emotion from such harsh recordings and when Beal’s voice is high in the mix, his gravelly tones hit home hard. Unfortunately the highlights are too few and far between; “Evening’s Kiss” is a good throwaway ditty while “Monotony” is a beautifully understated paean backed by plaintive chords, but there is little else on offer. This is the most frustrating thing about Acousmatic Sorcery, Beal can write and perform songs which tug on the heartstrings as well as get you on your feet. Unfortunately, he appears determined to be kept an outsider. The psychotic laugh which closes proceedings may serve as a message to all us reviewers – Beal doesn’t want to join in and he certainly doesn’t need to, it’s just a shame that the record doesn’t do the performer justice.