A young man with an old soul, Willis Earl Beal has little place in 2012. He isn’t one for travelling without moving, social media exchanges an alien concept; his stories are born from first-hand encounters spread across the United States. From New Mexico to Chicago, his journeying is the genesis of this debut set – and somewhere along the way, Mos Def got in touch proposing a film based on Beal’s life to date. His dramas are small but universal: the flush of love at first sight, and the pain of unrequited affections; the drag of minimum-wage drudgery. And everything is styled by the lo-fi feel of recording into cheap karaoke machines.
Acousmatic Sorcery possesses an offbeat magic, its hold on the listener tight but its rattle archaic. Beal hasn’t sold himself at the crossroads – he’s spied the dusty remains of those who’ve failed to broker deals with higher powers and pressed ahead alone. So this set emerges rough-edged, ill-fitting, barely a whisper compared to the modern studio majority; yet it resonates with such feeling that its contents are irresistible. Its beat-poet blues at times recall Robert Johnson as remoulded by the mindset of Saul Williams: listen to the wandering Cosmic Queries, the chain-gang clank of Swing on Low, and the trail from Mississippi blues to Brooklyn beats is brightly illuminated. Ghost Robot is boombox punk referencing Bob Dylan, while Evening’s Kiss – a lovelorn tale of being smitten by a waitress – is barely there at all, weighed from wafting into the ether only by a heavily plucked acoustic. Its analysis of self-doubt echoes across generations, even if the end product is as ‘modern pop’ as a Howlin’ Wolf anthology.
That said, the whoop and holler of bluesmen past is largely absent across these 11 cuts, even if the unpolished atmospheres are evocative of (just-)post-WWII recordings; Beal typically delivers his songs in hushed tones, raucousness the exception. What is present is that instant-click connection between artist and audience that only comes with the most naked of performances – Monotony is one such riveting recital, sketchy yet complete – and Beal’s commitment to documenting the minutiae alongside the meaningful in comparable detail ensures that even-handedness permeates the entire set. He’s laid himself bare, and in doing so has created a home of sorts after a wandering-soul existence: this is his discomfort zone, but well worth paying a visit to.
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