"Contradiction is the nature of existence," goes a quote on the inside of Willis Earl Beal's first album Acousmatic Sorcery. For the twenty-something Beal it may as well be mantra. The Chicago-native who spent time busking on the city's busy L is a contradictory character. An artist, who can go from shredding his vocals in fits of ecstasy, to quietly singing of deep despair at the drop of a hat. This give-and-take is played to full tilt on the record, delivering listeners a musical yin-yang that rarely disappoints.
One of the first features of the record sure to strike any listener is the lo-fi feel. These are tracks with more than a little dirt on them, lovingly dug from Beal's brain in the middle of the night. On the ghostly "Cosmic Queries" you can imagine Beal walking down a shadowy street as the tolling of a bell signals the witching hour. While there is a certain romanticism that accompanies this recording method, it is sure to frustrate a few listeners. The primal blues of "Take Me Away" sports a barbaric drum-beat that blasts right into the red; ruining a headphone or two in the process. "My head is heavy, but my body is light" Beal blares, recalling hero Tom Waits at his most unhinged. Beal can't sustain the song for long and it soon collapses to the floor.
Beal starkly contrasts the working blues of "Take Me Away" on the standout "Evening's Kiss." Here he is channeling his inner-folkie, softly strumming an out-of-tune guitar. It's easy to picture Beal laying down this track in his bedroom, staring at the ground as he whispers into the mic. "Ask me who I'm with, and I'll tell you I'm without," he sings as we strain to hear his every word. It's Beal at his most confessional, searching for love and finding none. This quest takes a toll on Beal and he fades away into the overcast night.
Just when Beal is on the verge of giving up the ghost, he storms back with the resolute "Ghost Robot." On this track and companion piece "Swing on Low," he assumes his best b-boy stance; delivering a proto-rap pill that cures his every ailment. On the latter which rides a workmanlike groove, he dubs himself "the caffeinated chap," a microphone and a dream his only tools.
All of Beal's troubles and triumphs lead to "Away My Silent Lover," the album's most tender moment and an early nominee for "Song of the Year." "I just wanted to be so much better than me," is the austere affirmation that accompanies the track's dull chords. Here Beal taps into a sentiment we all strive for. Rarely are we comfortable in our skin, longing to be sized-up for a new coat that will never fit. In his pining for perfection, Beal turns to the sweet siren of his dreams. The troublesome temptress is all the hope he needs, as Beal sits freezing in a gutter she is the fire that keeps him warm. "One day we shall be together," he steadfastly sings. This resolve disappears and he chokes back tears as buries his head on his pillow. The track nods off to sleep as Beal bids the "silent lover" adieu, knowing their love is a dream that can never be reality.
"Away My Silent Lover"
On the aforementioned "Take Me Away," Beal assures us he "has nothing more to say." As the nightmarish "Angel Chorus" ends the album with a laugh that would make Screamin' Jay Hawkins proud, we realize this couldn't be further from the truth. Beal has brought order out of chaos. He's been baptized in fire and shed enough tears to fill a river. Bukowski, an admitted hero of Beal's, once asserted that "if you're going to try, go all the way or else don't try at all." Beal fully commits to that exhortation on Acousmatic Sorcery, and in the process has created an album short on certainty and long on contradiction. An album that stands as the strongest to be released so far this year.