For a while there it seemed that Willis Earl Beal pulled one over on all of us. After a widely disseminated acapella performance of his as yet unreleased tune “Wavering Lines” (along with several others) hit Youtube, as well as a curious interview from the set of X Factor, the blogosphere was a-buzzing. But “Evening’s Kiss” aside, Beal’s full-length debut, Acousmatic Sorcery, left a bit wanting. Even after signing to indie-titan XL, Beal chose to put out an album that was more interesting for the man behind it than the music itself. Acousmatic Sorcery belied Beal’s Waits-ian yawp, favoring instead Daniel Johnston-esque folk deconstructions and brutally warped pseudo-raps. Just like the man himself, the album was a curiosity, but unlike Beal’s compelling backstory, Sorcery had people poised to run for the hills.
Early adopters were more than ready to do some bandwagon jumping–to chalk up Beal’s early successes to a hype cycle too fast for a sometimes homeless subway platform musician to keep up with. But then came reports of his live show. These were primal, raucous, stomping affairs–gospel inflected rave-ups that funneled John Maus’ performance aesthetic through chain gang chants and choir robes. They were revelatory. Armed with naught but a tape machine and Scotch-shredded vocal chords, Beal goes manic onstage, even to the point of tragic, unrestrained chaos (as a homeless man in Holland who received a boot to the face from Beal can woefully inform you).
If not for this boundless energy, this unpredictability, this very literal danger made evident in the live show, the release of a free EP of re-recorded songs might have been met with even less than the collective shrug that the internet had previously cast Beal’s way, but as it is, a certain curiosity was still aroused. Would Beal be able to replicate the lightning in a bottle of his live sets?
Designed ostensibly to soundtrack a forthcoming short film of the same name, Principles of a Protagonist fulfills all the soulful aching that Acousmatic Sorcery and pairs it with production more befitting Beal’s whiskey soaked vocal takes. Much like Daniel Johnston’s 1990 finally brought forth the definitive version of his landmark “True Love Will Find You In The End,” these versions flesh out Beal’s lo-fi ambling, rendering coherence and potency from a muddy puddle of unsubstantiated platitudes.
“Swing On Low,” which functioned on Acousmatic Sorcery as the most pungent example of Beal’s bizarro pseudo-rap side, is given the heart-wrenching treatment it begged for. Trading its nauseating wooziness for crisp drums and a boozy chorale of a vocal take, Beal lends muscle to a track that was once castrated, despite its lyrical fertility. Much like Beal’s vein-bulging live performances, he stains the tape with spittle, coming across a crazed false prophet on the street corner to Acousmatic Sorcery’s immature choir boy.
“Cosmic Queries” too finds Beal stretching himself, bringing doomsaying vocals over ominously descending synth sounds, all without expending the credibility that his homespun sound won him to begin with. It’s a bit melodramatic, sure, but it fits, and much better than the out of tune guitars on Acousmatic Sorcery’s version ever could have hoped to.
Even “Evening’s Kiss,” the early single and obvious standout from Acousmatic Sorcery, receives a completely revamped version, trading in the stage whispers and muted pluckings of its earlier incarnation for a full-throated howl and fingerpicked guitar that lends the track the emotional currency it always deserved. Certainly one could make the argument that the increased fidelity exposes the lyrical holes in the tracks, but Beal sells it so hard that such criticisms don’t even really begin to scratch at the issues in play.
Acousmatic Sorcery was an attempt at Badlands-addled outsider art, but Principles of a Protagonist aims somewhere different entirely: straight for the emotional heart of these tracks. Given that these are re-recordings it’s difficult to deem them instant classics, but with Beal’s ideological shift its hard to ignore the fact that these are songs that have finally achieved their full potential. Acousmatic Sorcery was a decided move back toward relative anonymity, but Principles of a Protagonist deserves a shove back into the spotlight. Stripped bare and free of the low fidelity obfuscation, Beal stands tall, tape machine at his back and microphone at the ready. Now it’s only a matter of whether the goodwill of the public will shine its light on him for a second time.