This debut may imperfect, but that's kinda the point
‘Outsider music’ feels like an old-fashioned concept these days. It still serves as a descriptor for lots of extraordinary artists, though: people who either didn’t fit the record industry’s specifications, or just ignored it entirely and released their bizarro burble into a world that generally didn’t care, like Daniel Johnston and R Stevie Moore. But things done changed. We now have an atrophying record industry, distribution channels like Bandcamp open equally to avant-unlistenables and wannabe-corporate blandos, viral marketers trying to trick our defences and a mainstream that has nabbed armfuls of ideas from outsider music, film and art. So where does 27-year-old Chicagoan Willis Earl Beal fit into this?
Beal moved to New Mexico in 2007 and spent his time recording music to cassette – rough, self-involved, idiosyncratic acoustic beatnik blues – and advertising himself for work via hand-drawn flyers. One of these was reproduced in an arty journal, [i]Found[/i], and Beal began to get calls from curious readers, including Mos Def. Throw in a move back to Chicago, an appearance on American X Factor (the highest-profile stage for life’s outsiders) and Adele’s label signing him to a four-album deal, and this story ticks so many boxes it almost seems scripted. Well, if people insist on debating ‘authenticity’, rather this than ‘Born To Die’ a-bloody-gain. Musically, ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’ is a bit more interesting, too.
In short, there’s lo-fi, and then there’s this album. Songs generally consist of a rudimentary, one or two-chord strum topped with Beal’s vocals, which are cracked and unrefined but have a clear blues’n’soul ancestry – on ‘Bright Copper Noon’ he seems to be channelling Otis Redding. Plenty of famous and canonical musicians have toyed with this intimacy and rawness: ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’ recalls ‘Loser’-era Beck (‘Ghost Robot’, which adds “[i]freewheelin’ like I’m Bob Dylan[/i]” to drive the point home), Tom Waits (‘Take Me Away’) and Captain Beefheart (the extraordinary, eight-minute ‘Angel Chorus’).
Beal’s the real deal when it comes to self-trained clawing, and he turns it to his advantage. ‘Nepenenoyka’, the album’s opener and sole instrumental, is eked out on a lap harp and deconstructs musical convention in a way that made an outsider icon of Texan recluse Jandek, who Beal has namechecked as an influence. As you might have figured out by now, Willis Earl Beal isn’t for everyone.Essentially, there are no tunes on ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’, although moments like the near-heartbreaking ‘Evening’s Kiss’ suggest a clear pop-song nous. A mousy, paper-thin fumble of a ditty called ‘Monotony’ (and with good cause) might be a deal-breaker, if you’re not already sympathetic to lo-fi’s self-defined flaws – it seems to tip over into celebrating sloppiness and mediocrity, rather than sidestepping it.
Would he be further exposed in the luxury of a studio? Worry about that later; these recordings were about capturing moments, and they did so admirably.