Willis Earl Beal lives in a lot of different skins. Metaphorically. Not like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. I don’t think. I mean, I would doubt it. There’s no proof. Let’s hope not, especially since Jonathan feels he’s at his best in the dark softly singing you to sleep. Lock your doors.
I applaud the way in which you cleverly introduced the archetype of Willis Earl Beal as someone to be found in every city – someone each one of us knows. By prefacing his actual biography in this way, you’ve aptly pointed out something that I grappled with every time I cued up Acousmatic Sorcery for a listen: the W.E.B. snapshot mythology. This prevailing theory on musical subjectivity was threatening to topple everything I had so dearly planned on criticizing. I’d like to claim that I knew Willis from the beginning – that I ran into him at a bar in Chicago and bought him a bottle of Old Style, or that one of his hastily-scrawled flyers fluttered across my path. But I didn’t. I had scarcely heard of the guy prior to about two weeks ago. And in the maelstrom of pop culture, I was vaguely aware of his appearance on The X-Factor, which certainly didn’t engender him to my radar. But back to my theory. Your intro was totally on-point in framing Willis’s personal story; it did remind me of the W.E.B. in my life. But in doing so, it laid the foundation for the kind of mythological figure he was becoming overnight – the prototype for a sort of urban midwestern, Amelie-like quirk. From his simple drawings and his earnest message of human connection, to his five minutes in the reality show spotlight, I liked him before I even heard his own songs. I was already prepared to cheer him on. I jumped from interview article to photo to YouTube video until I was virtually swimming in a deluge of information on a man so formerly under-the-radar. At that moment, Jenn, I cut myself off. I stopped reading anything about Willis Earl Beal. This snapshot mythology was making me like him too much. It’s the classic debate of the artist versus the work itself. Can an artistic work be objectively scrutinized without the context of the artist; did I need to know Willis’s story to understand his music?
One tidbit I did find interesting before my self-imposed W.E.B. communications blackout was the role that Found Magazine played in his quasi-rise to underground fame. Supposedly, at an event in Alburquerque, a fan (of Found) presented Davy Rothbart with one of Willis’s hand-drawn flyers, which then quickly “found” its way onto the cover of the seventh issue, released in January 2010. That issue also featured an extensive interview with Beal. Though his infamous X-Factor appearance may have been seen by millions, I would argue that Found Magazine‘s adoption of Beal as a sort of “Found star” did more to vault him into the spotlight by which he’s currently viewed.
So you’re probably wondering, by now, what I think about Acousmatic Sorcery? Well, I completely agree with you on the title. It hints at both the style and flavor of its contents. Straightaway, it’s unapologetic about the demo-like, lo-fi recording quality and musical genre-hopping Willis displays. I must admit I didn’t know what to expect. Album opener “Nepenenoyka” starts the listener off-guard with a short track devoid of vocals, and features only the plucked high notes of some (stringed) instrument to a liltingly childlike melody. During my dry-run of Acousmatic Sorcery, it was off-putting to me from the gates. It just didn’t sound very musical. And where was the voice I had been hearing so much about? But after repeated listens, and thinking more about what you said, Jenn – “that something unique was approaching” – I gradually warmed up to it. It sounded slightly unsure – experimental. It “foreshadowed,” as you said, the genre exploration that the album aggregates. “Cosmic Queries” was indeed odd, displaying spoken-word stream of consciousness and that trance-like melodic quality you spoke of.
Lyrically, it was a double-stuffed oreo of interesting thoughts and quotable fodder. “Evening’s Kiss” is appropriately the album’s clear (and actual) first single, showcasing Beal’s melancholic crooning with his spare guitar/banjo plucking and even his own artwork as the raw material for the video. Though bordering a little too close to Jack Johnson for comfort, “Evening’s Kiss” is where I find Willis Earl Beal’s stylings to be at their strongest. As much as I enjoy hearing his vocal range during a belted-out gutteral howl, or when he waxes gospel choir, I found him most palatable (and most interesting) when he was quietly singing me to sleep with his breathy and sad but hopeful voice. He could scarcely finish singing, “Can’t see the wind but I see the trees sway / now the evening’s kiss got me fading away” before I was out cold. In fact, I should call him when I’m in desperate need of a nap. (BTW, have you considered posting a video of your cat dozing off while listening to Willis Earl Beal?) I can see “Evening’s Kiss” becoming mixtape fodder for some time to come, and reminds me a lot of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s “Tonight Was A Disaster,” though a lot more wistful and introspective. This is the stuff of stumbling home alone from the bar at 2am after unsuccessfully hitting on a girl and cursing yourself for your desperation and stupidity, but picking up your guitar and improvising something poetic, confessional, and beautiful. “Monotony,” another strong track, follows in the same vocal and stylistic vein.
This genre-hopping can work for some (read: Janelle Monáe for about 5 minutes), but Willis Earl Beal is at his best when his singing is restrained almost to a whisper in the dark. I imagine him recording in his bedroom in the middle of the night while everyone else is sleeping, singing and improv-ing what’s on his mind while absentmindedly but repetitiously strumming the same note. Jenn, this trance-like quality you so perfectly described drew me in. Willis made me feel like a childhood friend, and we were sitting in his living room laying down tracks while empty cans of beer lay strewn about – every utterance, cough, chuckle, mistake recorded. And I couldn’t shake a growing musical comparison taking shape in my head to those K Records mainstays and Calvin Johnson eterna-project, Beat Happening. Watch “Our Secret” and tell me that even though they’re totally different, they’re not kind of doing the same thing. But do I want Beal to continue being this enigma on the fringes of making it big, or do I want to see him explode onto the scene, record in some famous studio named “The Beat Shed” and have the suffix “Prod. by Diplo” attached to the end of all his song titles? Is it wrong for me to want him to have slicker production (any production)? Give the man Danger Mouse, or an unreleased Jay Dilla beat. Have The Roots back him up – something, anything. Would he then lose the novelty – his country yet midwestern charm, that subtle eccentricity – if it were any less under-produced?
In the end, the “home demos” feel to his songs can’t carry him; I would argue he uses up all his lo-fi charm capital on Acousmatic Sorcery. His next release on XL Recordings’ Hot Charity needs to step it up. For now, he gets a “get out of jail free card” from me. You touched on something really important at the end of your post, Jenn. You mentioned that you didn’t know how to digest Acousmatic Sorcery, yet. I had the same problem. What skin does Willis Earl Beal feel really comfortable living in?
“I’m still disillusioned and cool, catatonic, always in a daze without smoking that chronic,”
Acousmatic Sorcery is out via Hot Charity 4/3.