Try as hard as you might, when it comes to the debut album from Willis Earl Beal it’s very hard to approach the music without referencing his back story. Maybe it’s because most acts these days come from such a dull, homogonous place, but you can’t help but be intrigued by the tale of a an ex-soldier who ended up living rough in New Mexico before leaving CD-Rs of his music for people to chance upon and ending up on the US X-Factor. The nagging feeling that it could all be an elaborate hoax aside, it’s certainly a good deal more interesting than how The Vaccines all met.
It also puts Acousmatic Sorcery in an important context, as the chances are that you won’t hear anything like it again this year – or indeed want to. Taken from his expansive set of home recordings, the fact that such an album can exist on the same label as the biggest selling record of recent years is mind boggling. Then again, you sense that Adele would find more common ground with Beal than you might expect. He is very much rooted in the worlds of blues and soul, albeit in the rawest of forms.
This lowest fi imaginable approach makes the record a tough listen. The opening instrumental ‘Nepeneoyka’ doesn’t help, so claustrophobic of sound that it leaves you catching your breath. ‘Take Me Away’ and ‘Cosmic Queries’ are similarly harsh on the ear and the thought of another eight tracks of this seems pretty unattractive. In truth, the recording quality doesn’t get any better but, once you adapt, Acousmatic Sorcery does hold some hidden wonders. ‘Evening’s Kiss’ is the pinnacle, a sweet song with an almost pop melody (no wonder it was picked as a single, for all the mainstream good it’ll do), the softer flipside to the more feisty ‘Swing On Low’ and its almost rap style delivery. As the record moves on, you’re never more than far away from a moment that will either stop you in your tracks or simply annoy the hell out of you.
Beal clearly knows what he’s doing here, no Daniel Johnston style innocent but a savvy individual who just happens to be a bit on the eccentric side. He can sing and he can write songs without doubt, none of which wouldn’t benefit in ordinarily from being recorded in a proper studio. Then again if he was just another new artist releasing just another record, the chances are that we wouldn’t be talking about him half as much. As we say, Willis Earl Beal know’s what’s what.