By Scott Creney
Willis Earl Beal has a compelling backstory, and it’s worth checking out (all you have to do is click on any other review). But his debut album is bigger than any biography, and it deserves better than to be sold as ‘outsider music’ (trust me — Beal isn’t any more of an outsider or a weirdo than you are). Acousmatic Sorcery is a brilliant work of art, created by someone who knows a hell of a lot more about life, the world, and what it’s like to struggle through a turgid pool from one day to the next than someone like, say, Grimes. He’s got a bigger vocabulary than the dude from The Shins, and he’s thinking a lot more deeply about existence than The Head And The Heart.
There’s a righteousness at the heart of these songs, a riveting freedom that makes Contemporary Indie — cute, smug, obvious, self-obsessed, eager to please — seem hilariously and stupidly irrelevant.
For the first three songs, it’s easy to imagine Beal as a more cognizant Wesley Willis, a South Side Sebadoh, a less silly Cody Chesnutt, someone versed in field hollers and possibly Tom Waits. Then ‘Evening’s Kiss’ starts and it becomes obvious that comparisons are pointless. It’s uncomfortably chilling and absolutely beautiful. I start thinking about Elliott Smith, and then I realize that we’re a third of the way into the album and Willis Earl Beal is bursting with ideas. This is an artist to be reckoned with.
I haven’t responded to an album like this since I first heard Daniel Johnston, an intimate loneliness that is impossible to use as background music. Emotionally, Acousmatic Sorcery is devastating. It’s loaded like a gun pointing at your head.
There’s a desperation in this music, a desperation to communicate, that can’t be faked. Acousmatic Sorcery conjures up memories of working overnight shifts for years at a time, living in relentless poverty, psychic scars, and every interaction you have with people is awkward and fruitless unless you observe them from a distance. Beal writes about human beings like someone who does a lot of watching. But you know, it’s the guy at the party sitting on the couch and not talking to anyone who sees the night most clearly.
Play it at 3am when you’re scared and shaking and unable to sleep. Play it as you sit under a streetlight and eat your convenience store supper. Play it as the roaches scurry around your apartment and you debate whether you should spend the five dollars on traps now, or you should wait until payday. Play it over and over again and be grateful that this music exists. It has the power to heal and provide strength, and god knows there’s enough people out there who need it.
In ‘Ghost Robot’, a fierce stream of free-association, Beal compares himself to Bob Dylan and I’m not about to argue. This is better than anything Dylan’s done since before people walked on the moon. It’s more Subterranean, more Homesick, and infinitely more Blues (in the bleakest, most purifying sense of the Blues).
‘Bright Cooper Noon’ is as bizarre and disturbing as Coco Rosie. At the end of ‘Sambo Joe From The Rainbow’, Beal mutters come and save me. It’s the real soul.
But because he isn’t a white college graduate, and because he doesn’t make music like anyone else, some folks — even the ones who like the album — are quick to dismiss him as some kind of idiot savant. They dismiss originality as eccentricity. Because he isn’t trying to fit in, he must be a weirdo. Because he doesn’t do things the way everyone else does, he must not know any better. Because he doesn’t sound like anyone else, he must not know anything about contemporary music.
But Willis Earl Beal knows what he’s doing. He’s miles ahead of me. This is a talent that’s impossible to pin down. His restless creativity means he’s liable to go anywhere from here. Put him in a big studio, put him in a phone booth, I’m liable to believe the guy can create art out of anything. In Acousmatic Sorcery, he’s made an album that is haunting and endlessly creative, with a strangeness and originality that is addictive.