The term outsider music supposes that its creator is a lone wolf that chafes at the thought of musical conformity or lyrical conventions, or any traditional trappings associated with the commercial music industry. Chicago singer-songwriter Willis Earl Beal may fall under the umbrella of outsider musician, but the story of how he got signed to XL’s Hot Charity indie imprint shows a man that desires to be heard by as many people as possible.
A profile in the Chicago Reader from July of 2011 cast a light on a 27-year-old African-American man who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, saw a stint in the Army, lived with his grandmother, and bummed around Albuquerque. Beal also promised on flyers that he would send drawings to his fans if they mail him a letter or sing songs if they call his house. He also tried to grab stardom by auditioning for the reality television show The X Factor. On top of all that, Mos Def wanted to make a film based on the young artist’s life thus far.
Such a bifurcated personality (he’s also a huge Jandek and Tom Waits fan) naturally attracted a big indie label such as XL. Beal’s debut album, Acousmatic Sorcery, is a lo-fi home recording, but he’s feebly reaching beyond these crude beginnings. When Beal finally reaches his dream of becoming a star, his stentorian voice will be the one of the major vehicles that propels him there. On the intimate single, “Nobody’s Kiss,” his delivery is feathery and touching. He’s pining after a waitress at a dingy diner and the lyrics slice all the way to the heart: “Ask me who I’m with and I tell you I’m without” On the flipside, Beal booms on the soulful blues stomper, “Take Me Away.” It’s a stellar blues cut with the kind of junkyard beat that Tom Waits has perfected over the years.
Beal’s lyrics proves to be the major sticking point for an album that is quite successful. Most of these tracks follow the kind of topsy turvy logic of a Kaufman film. Beal is a raw street poet on metallic rap cut “Ghost Robot,” where he references Bob Dylan, and morphs into a metropolitan seer on “Bright Copper Moon.” These shifts in character are appealing to an extent. but make for a choppy and amateurish debut album. It’s also disconcerting that “Same Olde Tears” and “Wavering Lines” never made the cut. His raw YouTube street performances were hair raising.
Beal won’t vanish from the public eye now that he’s caught our attention. He has too much raw talent for that. The outsider artist just needs some time to develop and mold all his potential for and desires for becoming an insider. He’s already got a killer origin story, now he just needs a bulletproof album.