At first glance Willis Earl Beal, the enigmatic songwriter from Chicago, appears to be an antidote to the rapid Tumblr and meme-ification of music, with his ghostly, straight-from-the-gramophone blues-folk howl and his unlikely rags-to-record label back-story, complete with tales of homelessness and busking at train stations. He’s eclectic, vintage and mysterious, all qualities that can get you marked with the scarlet letter “A” for authentic. He doesn’t tweet. He lives with his grandma. In a constantly mutating online landscape where Grimes refers to her music as “post-Internet,” Beal doesn’t even sound “post-microwave.”
And, yet, the complex circumstances surrounding the release of Beal’s first official LP, Acousmatic Sorcery, feel startlingly contemporary, despite Beal’s own misgivings about online communication. To Google “Willis Earl Beal” is to travel down a rustic wormhole that takes you from a charming personal flier he posted with his phone number on it that ended up on the cover of Found Magazine, to a lengthy profile in the Chicago Reader, to the recently uncovered footage of Beal auditioning on the Simon Cowell-produced music talent show The X Factor. Beal may be done with the Internet, but the Internet sure isn’t done with him. Though the songs on Sorcery were written and recorded between 2007 and 2009, this is the first time most people will hear Beal’s oddball collection of dissonant anti-folk, blown-up blues, tweaked-out R&B and scrappy proto-hip-hop. The album itself is only going to spur further conversation.
The record opens with “Nepenenoyka,” a brief and unsettling composition featuring the lap harp of the same name. Beal settles into a groove with “Take Me Away,” a showcase for his bellowing Tom Waits growl, his chugging and rattling percussion techniques and his often simplistic but effective beat-poetry ramblings. “I have been a teacher and a pupil in the school/I’ve followed and broken each and every rule/Lord, I’m as tired as a mule,” he cries as the drums stumble along. “Cosmic Queries” finds Beal crooning in a rich, lovely baritone over what sounds like a broken church bell run through a broken MacBook’s speakers. Given time to stretch out over a lurching and repetitive rhythm, Beal casts a hypnotic spell. “We are heroes/We are fiends/In this field of dreams,” says Beal toward the end, his voice taking on a preacher-like tone as the clock ticks away on his haunting fever dream.
As with many home recordings and lo-fi, outsider artists, there’s a sense of vulnerability at work in these songs that can be both exhilarating and discomforting. Like poring over someone else’s diary or peeking through a window, listening to Beal sing about his pain and confusion can feel like a violation. However, the record has some fleeting moments of pop pleasure. “Evening’s Kiss” is the record’s obvious single, and it’s easy to see what attracted labels and blogs to the song in the first place: It’s an acoustic, dorm-room-ready, emo anthem. “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,” he sings. It’s easy to imagine the countless cover versions that will pop up on YouTube like digital weeds, and don’t be surprised if some major label artist swoops in with a goosed-up cover (Katy Perry?) and the song ends up scoring an HBO montage. I know these don’t necessarily sound like compliments, but trust me, it’s really good.
The rest of album finds Beal trying on different stylistic bowler hats, not all of them a perfect fit. His forays into scat hip-hop leave something to be desired, though there is a goofy intensity to “Ghost Robot,” despite some groaner lines like, “I’m freewheeling like Bob Dylan.” “Swing On Low” fares better with its playful, theatrical tics and refreshing moments of spontaneity and specificity. The slow-burning “Monotony” is built around a gently strummed guitar line and Beal’s gentle croon, which often transcends the limitations of its shabby production. Beal is the rare artist that you almost wish would sell out and go work with Rick Rubin.
Despite all the Daniel Johnston and Tom Waits comparisons being tossed Beal’s way, the musician I kept thinking of while listening to Sorcery was the joyful, perpetually Based Berkley rapper Lil B. It’s not that Lil B and Beal sound alike (For one thing, B is a much better rapper). It’s that they both view creativity as a compulsion, a vomit-like exercise where emotions and ideas burst out of your consciousness and onto tape where they live forever despite their flaws. Acousmatic Sorcery is an occasionally iridescent collection of songs, but at the end of the day it feels too tasteful, too self-consciously curated. Where Lil B is often accused of not editing himself enough (or ever), Beal feels like he’s only begun to emerge from his cocoon. “I felt like I had this divine purpose to become an underground cult legend,” Beal said in an interview last year. But why be an underground cult legend when you could be an underground king?