Like Lana Del Rey and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon before him, Willis Earl Beal is a singer-songwriter with a media-friendly backstory that’s something of a Rorschach test. The 27-year-old Beal recorded the songs that make up his debut album, Acousmatic Sorcery—among dozens of other tracks—when he was working nights as a hotel porter in the late ’00s. A loner who eventually moved from Albuquerque back home to Chicago to live with his grandmother, Beal is a self-taught musician whose songs set spare, hallucinatory poetry against a crude blend of blues, anti-folk, rock, and hip-hop. For the sake of posterity, he recorded his tunes on a karaoke machine via a $20 microphone; later, he publicized himself by posting hand-drawn fliers that looked like the work of an artistically inclined middle-schooler doodling in his social-studies notebook, and sought the company of “friends” by including his home number and address.
Beal sure sounds like a strange guy—perhaps a little too strange, and in overly familiar ways. He presents himself as nothing less than a self-made cult figure, and he openly courts comparisons to damaged man-child tunesmiths like Daniel Johnston and Jandek. As intriguing as that might make him to some people, this seems like a mistake, and not only because there was already a mini-controversy about Beal trying out for The X Factor. Beal’s debut comes with unnecessary baggage about the clouding influence of hype and the meaning of artistic legitimacy, and this will inevitably color impressions of his music. Beal has left himself open to all the old, tiresome authenticity questions: Sure, he’s a weirdo, but is he weird enough? Is Acousmatic Sorcery his coming-out party, or a sign that Beal as an underground phenomenon is over? Is it possible to hear these songs through the din of so much chatter deriving from his press packet?
Willis Earl Beal and Lana Del Rey have nothing in common except for this: Neither fits comfortably with the image the media (with the artists’ assistance, admittedly) has created for them. At least that’s the impression given by the heavily curated version of Beal’s music presented on Acousmatic. Beal’s songs are strange, otherworldly, and highly idiosyncratic, but they’re rarely off-putting, and never ugly. To the contrary, Acousmatic is an enchanting record, for those who can find a place in Beal’s unusual headspace. Many of the songs, while not exactly catchy, are pretty easy to like. Strip away the oddball production and the eccentric personality tics, and what’s left is a fine songwriter and tremendous singer with a range he’s only begun to explore. Beal might self-identify as an “outsider artist,” but he’s actually a fairly conventional budding star.
For every musical genre Beal plays with as if discovering it for the first time on Acousmatic, he has a different vocal style he’s trying on for size. On “Cosmic Queries,” he does stark, raving spoken-word poetry over music that sounds like a Bernard Herrmann film score run through a garbage disposal. Over the atonal clank of “Sambo Joe From The Rainbow,” Beal affects a croon as warm and tender as a crackling Bing Crosby 78, murmuring softly about being pulled up “from the river to the visceral sky tonight.” On “Monotony,” he slips into a quivering doo-wop falsetto while strumming a guitar that sounds like it has one string.
On these songs—as well as more overt homages, like the barking field holler “Take Me Away”—Beal strongly recalls his greatest hero, Tom Waits; he displays a similar knack for scuffing up his most beautiful songs with spontaneous dissonance, and unearthing the battered beauty in his noisiest blasts of cacophony. But Beal also plays it straight with surprising frequency, and the results are just as arresting. The threadbare romantic ballad “Evening’s Kiss” sounds like the work of another solitary singer-songwriter who initially made his name with lo-fi recordings: Elliott Smith. On “Away My Silent Lover,” Beal adopts a bluesier tone, sounding as old and weathered as Jack White does in his dreams.
Part of Acousmatic’s appeal—and here’s where the outsider-artist stuff comes in—is that Beal recorded these songs without any expectation that the public would hear them. (Acousmatic was originally released as a compilation overseen by Found magazine.) This makes the best parts seem more intimate and heartfelt than they might otherwise be, and turns the weaker bits into forgivable goofs. And Beal is never weaker or goofier than when he attempts to rap. His flow on “Swing On Low” might be the most awkward attempt at freestyling since Blondie’s Debbie Harry high-fived Fab Five Freddy in “Rapture.” (Even sillier is “Ghost Robot,” which actually includes the line “chillin’ like a villain.”)
But no matter the circumstances under which Acousmatic was made, what comes through most clearly on the album is Beal’s burning desire to be heard, however it was going to happen, and a confidence that his talent deserves it. In his X Factor interview, Beal comes off as a loose cannon, with an unwavering belief in himself that normally screams “wacky lunatic!” on TV talent shows. “I’m just gonna sing well, hopefully,” Beal says at one point. After a pause, he adds, “There’s no ‘hopefully’ about it, I’m gonna sing well.” On Acousmatic Sorcery, he finally gets his close-up.