Willis Earl Beal – “Acousmatic Sorcery”
By: Stone Irr
Chicago Singer-Songwriter Willis Earl Beal displays quite a bit of integrity, warmth and passion. You notice this even before hearing his music. Before moving back to Chicago, Beal would often leave CD-Rs of his intimate, lo-fi recordings on park benches in Albuquerque. This communication through art continued in Chicago.
Beal would put up posters around the city with a hand sketched portrait of himself surrounded with phrases such as “I like oatmeal, trainstations, night time and chamomile tea” soon followed with “Call me if you are a nice, pretty girl. I am 5’ 9.”” These posters were deceptively creepy as well as audaciously charming.
This method of poster promotion evolved into a means to promote his music. With Beal’s phone number up on the poster, he promised that if you “call me I will sing you a song.” This information is even on his album artwork as well as an address claiming that if you “write to me I will make you a drawing.” This intimate structure Beal attempts to create is quite the endeavor. Yet he somehow accomplishes it and focuses that intimacy into his debut album.
So. Let’s get to the music. “Nepenenoyka” starts the album off with toy instruments resonating in low fidelity. The sound is reminiscent of a choral group working on their separate vocal parts right before a performance. The structural confusion somehow translates into melody through this gritty music.
Chain gang songs and a hint of slave melodies are beautifully revived with “Take Me Away.” A strong, simple vocal loop boldly starts off the song and soon allows it to flow with a very raw drumbeat holding the structure of the song in tact. But this isn’t a loop of Beal swooning his listener — this is a raw voice emulating a sudden jerk of the foot pressed up against the car accelerator and then is instantaneously let off.
Due to the low fidelity of the recording, sometimes Beal’s voice overpowers this loop, creating a natural and mutual exchange of vocal presences through out “Take Me Away.” The two layers present an epic musical struggle, heard once Beal starts to howl “Take me away/ If you believe/ Right Now/ Right Now.” One begins to think the intensity of his voice can’t last for much longer — then Beal, singing beyond himself, belts “Oh Lord/ Oh Lord/ I’m calling out to you My Lord/ My Lord.” Beal effortlessly recreates the raw feeling of early blues and traditional music, all while implementing a sense of cohesion.
Beal provides a shocking amount of vocal variation and musical depth. Throughout the first few songs, one begins to wonder if this album might be a compilation filled with multiple singers whom were put in front of a $20 microphone and reel-to-reel recorder. The soft, warm tremolo of Beal’s voice resonates in “Sambo Joe From The Rainbow.” Wispy, spider web-like words slowly fall in line with a muted guitar in “Evening Kiss” while the tearful, soul-ridden voice heard in “Away My Silent Lover” attempts to reassure hope to the listener before he announces the breakup — the end of the album. Beal then shows his acoustic ballad side with “Monotony” calmly announcing his daily interactions with the phrases “They ask me how do you do/I tell them that I don’t know/They say you go get a clue/ I ask them where do I go.”
“Ghost Robot” showcases Beal’s thoughts on the afterlife while he takes on a rap persona, claiming that he’s “freewheelin’ like I’m Bob Dylan.” Amid all of the confusion and when “all the bullshit is through” the melodic chorus reminds the listener that “you’re free when you’re dead.” This quasi-rap tune creates an electronic edge due to the deteriorated quality of the looped drums and guitar. This song recreates the structure of “Take Me Away” but is presented in a new and radical light.
The lyrics of Acousmatic Sorcery act as an open box of scribbled notes that emulate Beal’s life. These notes are filled with casual daydreams, diary entries and vivid visualizations seen throughout the day. Using his songs as a way to identify the small observations around him gives the listener an inside look into the thought process of what Beal is fixated with — even at his most bizarre.
Sometimes Beal’s raw approach (musically and lyrically) can be tiresome, especially on some of the songs that just don’t work (such as “Cosmic Queries”). This actually becomes a heavy detracting trait of the album that one at first doesn’t want to accept due to Beal’s genuineness. One other negative point comes from the attempt at re-replicating songs solely for the reason of denouement or as a result of unoriginality (“Angel Chorus,” “Swing On Low”). Certain songs (“Take Me Away,” “Evening Kiss,” “Ghost Robot,” and “Monotony”) carry the spirit of the album almost singlehandedly but the experience of listening to the whole album is required to appreciate the genius of these individual songs. In the end, pure, unadulterated integrity is what gives this album a distinct voice and edge amid a vast collection of soulless modernity.