The idiosyncratic, vaguely psychedelic merger of hip-hop, folk and acoustic blues is not a new idea: The Divine Styler, a.k.a. Brooklyn’s Marc Richardson, released two unjustly obscure albums mining this vein in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the second of which, Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light (1992), stands as a weird but enduring masterpiece. Now, at long last, Chicago singer, songwriter, rapper, home-recording enthusiast and man of mystery Willis Earl Beal has emerged to forward that odd legacy, and if he’s yet to match Richardson’s recorded peak, the raw talent, the potential and most of all the endearing eccentricity certainly are there.
Beal first came to widespread attention in the underground via an engaging profile by Leor Galil in The Chicago Reader, the essentials of which have become part of the artist’s enticing mythology: Emerging from the army to live with his grandmother on the South Side after a period as a wandering beatnik knocking around New Mexico, he started out as a busker (shades of R. Kelly and Beck), won some attention from the art world for his homespun sketches (echoes of Wesley Willis and Daniel Johnston) and, eschewing the Internet, introduced his music beyond his sidewalk performances via fliers tacked up around Wicker Park asking folks to call him and be his friend in exchange for him singing a song (just like early They Might Be Giants).
You have to feel something for any artist so eager to make contact with his fellow human beings, but none of that would mean much if the music wasn’t as poignant as the story. Often sounding as if he recorded on a four-track cassette deck at 2 a.m., trying not to wake grandma, Beal’s debut album Acousmatic Sorcery collects 11 tracks originally appearing on the home-burned CDs he’d sometimes leave around town as unexpected presents for their rescuers. As such, it’s an uneven compilation, opening with a toy-piano-like instrumental (“Nepenenoyka”), then shifting back and forth between two contrasting modes.
The minimal, introspective and existential acoustic ditties (“Cosmic Queries,” “Away My Silent Lover,” “Monotony”)may be intended to evoke early Dylan, who’s name-checked in the lyrics and pictured in the cover art on the wall behind a self-portrait of the artist and a naked white girlfriend, but they land much closer to Pink Moon-era Nick Drake and solo Syd Barrett. Meanwhile, the stomping, Martian blues (“Take Me Away,” “Swing on Low” or the more hip-hop-skewed “Ghost Robot”) apparently are intended as homage to one hero—“I want to be like the black Tom Waits,” Beal has said—though their genuine as opposed to hammed-upped strangeness actually better evokes the progenitor of that whole subgenre, the immortal Captain Beefheart.
The prominent theme that emerges through the sometimes cosmic, sometimes inscrutable stream-of-consciousness wordplay (“Pull me up from the river/To the visceral sky tonight,” Beal intones in “Sambo Joe from the Rainbow,” “Grandma turns on the fan/While I’m floating on the ground”) is, as befits a man with his back story, the desire for community and connection—the real deals, as opposed to the phony universe of Facebook friends. “Come and save me,” he says at the end of the aforementioned tune, redeeming the incomprehensibility that precedes that line. And, more poetically, there’s this typical couplet from “Evening’s Kiss”: “Clip-clop, concrete heels on it/I’m still disillusioned and cool catatonic/Always in a daze without smoking that chronic/And the door’s still open at the end of the day/And I’m still hoping without much to say.”
Imperfect though Acousmatic Sorcery may be—the listener longs for Beal to craft a set of tunes specifically intended to ebb and flow as an album, and to record with a sympathetic producer (Brian Deck would be ideal)—this lost and hopefully soon to be less lonely artist has connected with at least one fan, and no doubt many more will follow.
Willis Earl Beal, Acousmatic Sorcery (XL)
Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.