Part performance artist, part old-school busker, part in-your-face sidewalk preacher, Willis Earl Beal has become more myth than man. Creating an aura of mystery surrounding his identity and his art, Beal first garnered attention thanks to cryptic flyers scattered around Chicago that prompted unsuspecting bystanders to call him for a chat and a song. Beal’s is the ultimate pomo rags-to-riches story, as a sometimes homeless outsider artist apparently without a computer to his name becomes the toast of the blogosphere, ultimately parlaying word-of-mouth buzz into a multi-album deal on one of the most forward-thinking labels going today. And the legend just keeps growing, what with Beal’s X Factor audition interview coming to light recently.
Talk about your x-factors, alright. Whether you get him or not, Beal is uncompromising in sticking to his quirky musical vision on his debut Acousmatic Sorcery, almost as if he doesn’t notice anyone else is paying attention even when a lot of folks now are. Beal himself has stated he aspires to be the “black Tom Waits”—just listen to the junkyard folk of “Take Me Away” and it’s pretty clear where his gravelly voice and scrap-heap strumming find their inspiration. An even more apt and timely point of reference might be tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, another artist who’s not afraid to come from an eccentric point of view to create an eclectic, idiosyncratic aesthetic. The limit to such a comparison, though, is that Beal isn’t able to mold his overactive imagination into well-crafted songs with the same ingenuity and consistency that Garbus does, no matter how much the ramshackle music-box melodies and warped vocals bring tUnE-yArDs to mind.
Beal’s stream-of-consciousness approach to his lyrics may yield flashes of insight, but it’s just that you have to sort through many more WTF? head-scratchers to get to ‘em. When Beal waxes poetic, it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s a nugget of wisdom and pseudo-metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, like with the overstuffed and interminable musings of “Cosmic Queries”. On the one hand, not many songwriters would be able to string together an image of “tasers in a field of dreams” with a line questioning, “Is there some transcendental train for the ones who are none?” On the other, it’s tough to connect the dots between the two, no matter how hard you try to figure it out, especially when “oatmeal with cinnamon and butter” is apparently part of the equation. “Swing on Low” finds Beal at his most soulful when he’s channeling the spirit of spirituals for the chorus, but he’s “acting the fool” speaking in tongues about frogmen, cocoa butter and potpourri on the rest of the song. While you might like to chalk up what Beal’s doing to an art-for-art’s-sake sensibility, that’s too easy an out for mostly shoot-from-the-hip ramblings.
Certainly, there are many admirable qualities to Beal’s music, though some come off better on paper and in theory than in practice. On the agitated “Ghost Robot”, you can’t help but appreciate that Beal is a strong minority voice working in what’s ultimately a genre that’s not all that diverse in terms of race, class or even worldview. Getting political by disavowing politics on “Ghost Robot”, Beal takes on all comers to an ominous racket of thumped strings and clattering percussion, rendering his equal opportunity judgment on everyone from hipsters to “emo rock geeks” to “liberal-conservative political creeps” to Wall Street’s one-percenters, none of ‘em “no greater or lesser than the faceless, restless Skid Row blessers.” Yet even when he’s taking a stand on how “all this shit must end,” you can’t really imagine how Beal is going to bring any of this about just by skewering everyone and everything with what can’t be anything but a nihilistic point-of-view. There’s a lot of food for thought here and elsewhere on Acousmatic Sorcery, no doubt, but it can be difficult to suss out how much of it is meat on the bone or empty calories.
Making matters all the more befuddling, Beal’s affect tends to be as inscrutable as what he’s singing about, as he veers from brutal authenticity to earnest vulnerability to a self-consciously nonchalant attitude that makes you wonder how much of his act might be a put-on. On the growling, snarling “Take Me Away” and the introspective “Monotony”, Beal seems like the real deal, tapping a deep reserve of feeling to get across a sense of street-smart gravitas that goes beyond just the grit and weight of his voice. In particular, “Monotony” is the track that folks have already glommed onto and for good reason, because when he explains, “I guess that it could be worse / I know it could be worse,” you believe he knows what he’s talking about.
Just when you’re willing to go with whatever twists and turns Beal’s journey takes, there are enough red flags to make you think he might be an unreliable and untrustworthy guide. The one track that’s the most telling is the lead single “Evening’s Kiss”, which starts by moving from daydreamy philosophizing to a poignant slice of Beal’s life. “In remission of a mind, watch and listen to find / The position behind this illusion of time / Got me counting my dimes so on the bus I can ride,” the opening lines go—before the artist himself lets you know that he’s “not invested in this”, only begging the question why you would be if he isn’t. In effect, “Evening’s Kiss” all but tells you that Beal realizes his own ambivalence yields an ambiguous response, as he sings, “Ask me how I’m feeling / Well, I’m full of shit and doubt.” That sentiment might just be emblematic of Acousmatic Sorcery as a whole, as Beal’s non-committal shoulder shrugging makes it so that even a sympathetic listener can’t always buy in.
Ultimately, a good story in and of itself does not a transcendent album make. Acousmatic Sorcery struggles with being everything you want its out-of-the-box art to be and the reality of what it is: an intriguing work overloaded with unedited brainstorms and non-sequiturs that rarely gives the more compelling elements room to breathe and stretch out. That might be enough to get Willis Earl Beal noticed and give him a platform to get a few things off his chest, but only time will tell whether he’s just a novelty act or if he’ll make the most of the opportunity he has right now to avoid becoming one.