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SPIN Essentials

Willis Earl Beal, ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’ (XL Recordings)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 03, 2012
Label: XL

The Willis Earl Beal myth — a former soldier, briefly homeless, who now lives on the South Side of Chicago with his grandmother and staples solicitous, hand-illustrated fliers (“Greetings Ladies, my name is Willis Earl Beal”) to telephone poles around town — feels like it was dreamed up by some particularly wily P.R. firm. When he’s not distributing self-made personal ads, Beal records scrappy, undercooked folk songs, often to cassette, and half-plays a cornucopia of barely tuned instruments. There’s more: Dial the number on his website (773-295-2135) and he’ll sing you a song. Send him a postcard (P.O. Box 471881, Chicago, IL 60647) and he’ll draw you a picture — he might scribble “avant-garde” in the top-left corner, just so it’s clear what you’re getting). Also? He was a contestant on the American version of The X Factor — ousted in the preliminary “Boot Camp” phase, but not before spewing a few on-camera platitudes about giving it his all (and landing one pretty good Del Taco joke). It’s a whole lot of weird, American story.

Acousmatic Sorcery, Beale’s proper musical debut, follows a collection of demos, poems, and drawings (The Willis Earl Beal Collection) he released with Found in 2009, after the magazine acquired one of his signs, put it on the cover, and called him up. Now he shares an umbrella label (Hot Charity, an imprint of XL) with Adele, and is about to spend his summer touring the U.S. and Europe — which all means, of course, he’ll soon have a lot less time to serenade curious strangers on the telephone.

Stylistically, Acousmatic Sorcery is a bit of a romp: Beal borrows a few tics from hill country blues greats like Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside, building repetitive, mesmeric rhythms that can be deeply disorienting. But sometimes he sounds more like he’s regurgitating a bizarre, possibly imagined iteration of that music, and when he starts hollering, “My lawd!” at the end of “Take Me Away,” it feels disingenuous if not fully preposterous — a little joke, maybe, about what we expect from him (frenzy, rage, “soul”).

His more idiosyncratic moments are more genuinely beguiling, like the Donovan-esque spoken outro to “Cosmic Queries” (“Tasers in a field of dreams! Shock those who wander, it seems!”) delivered over a tinny, music-box buzz that recalls Washington Phillips’ oddball zithering circa 1927. (Beal sometimes plays a nepenenoyka, a tinny, rudimentary-sounding lap harp.) Beal possesses a lot of the same what-is-he-doing-no-really allure that’s since made Phillips something of a cult figure, mostly because his aesthetic is so shifty — none of these tracks do the same thing, and calling his vocals multitudinous feels like a brash understatement. On “Sambo Joe From the Rainbow,” Beal’s cadence is careful, sweet, and nearly British (it mirrors Nick Drake’s syntax and detachment), while on the soft and intoxicating “Evening’s Kiss,” he appears to be mining X-Ray Vision-era Moldy Peaches, singing plaintively and without pretense, a perfect inverse of his near-feral blues caterwaul.

Overall, the easiest analogue is Tom Waits, whom Beal has cited as an inspiration, and whose eclecticism is its own kind of style. The eight-minute closer “Angel Chorus” wouldn’t be entirely out of place on Mule Variations, with Beal spitting funny couplets (“I got a few looks from pretty women / On my way to the latrine”) over mostly unidentifiable noise. There’s a rich musical precedent for so-called “outsider art” of this particular ilk — Jandek, Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis — but Beal doesn’t appear to be mentally ill or maniacally reclusive, and he’s hardly the first dude to play a broken instrument and snarl like Waits. He’s a peculiar player, sure, but ultimately his categorization (both self- and outwardly imposed) as “other” feels more socio-cultural than musical.

In fact, the very best moments on Acousmatic Sorcery are the album’s most lucid. “Monotony,” with its lullaby-strums and guileless questioning (“They ask me how do you do / I tell them that I don’t know / They say to go get a clue / I ask them where do I go?”) is a stunning little folk song, anchored by his vulnerable coos and falsetto; it’s the clearest glimpse we get of Beal’s heart, and it’s transfixing. Despite (or maybe because of) his peculiar web of influences, Beal is a strikingly singular performer, synthesizing various muses into something deeply unique. Accordingly, it’s nearly impossible to turn away.