Willis Earl Beal’s debut album, “Acousmatic Sorcery,” is a deceptively simple record. At most, it features Beal’s voice, a guitar and a few sparse instruments. The songs haven’t been heavily produced since they were made with old karaoke equipment and a secondhand microphone. Despite its simplicity, though, the album shines by showcasing an extremely talented musician and vocalist.
“Acousmatic Sorcery’s” lo−fi sound and effortless melodies call to mind How to Dress Well’s “Love Remains” (2010), but with a rock slant. Lyrically, Beal’s songs would be nothing special if his vocals did not so effectively sell the emotions lying under the surface of the words.
The song “Away My Silent Lover” opens with the line, “I just wanted to be so much better than me.” Beal infuses the words with the pain of his life’s hardships in a way that is both heartbreaking and mesmerizing.
One of the album’s highlights is the song “Evening’s Kiss,” which features Beal playing a basic melody on his guitar while singing in a smooth and quiet tone. His seductive voice entices the listener, especially in uncomplicated lines like “I’m fading away,” which he repeats again and again with increasing conviction. Though this might seem like a run−of−the−mill song, it is anything but. Even when it doesn’t seem like Beal is bringing much to the record, his astounding and expressive voice keeps the listener engaged.
His lyrics often sound like random musings from his mind. The second verse of “Evening Kiss” starts with, “I can’t see the wind but I see the trees sway/ Now the evening’s kiss got me fading away/ just fading away.” It’s airy and simple, but Beal’s voice has an “it factor” to it that is hard to describe. It’s soulful and powerful, yet never overbearing.
Beal’s songs mix some of the best elements of old R&B tunes, acoustic rock numbers and early blues music without ever feeling too eclectic. Not everything works on the album, though. “Ghost Robot” features Beal doing some awful rapping. He tries for an Andre 3000 sound but comes off like a bad Gil Scott−Heron impression. Beal’s biggest draw is his voice, and when he is rapping there isn’t much to appreciate. The track is easily the album’s low point.
Beal’s next song, “Swing On Low,” has him in a sing−rap mode that works much better than “Ghost Robot” because of its playfulness. The switches to singing during verses are also enough to remind listeners of his astounding vocals, which make his rapping slightly more excusable. Still, it’s best that he limit the amount of rapping he attempts.
A stellar track on the album, “Monotony,” works because it does a great job of exhibiting Beal’s voice. The guitar on the song is only a few chord changes that sound almost like a beginner who is still feeling out the notes. What makes the song special are Beal’s smooth vocals. They could make Frank Ocean jealous. Beal also brings a plaintiveness to some of the simpler lines that imbues them with an energy they wouldn’t otherwise have. Print can’t do justice to his delivery of the lines, “They tell me to go get a clue/ I ask them where do I go/… am I depressed?/ … Don’t consider me blessed but don’t consider me cursed/ in this chaotic mess, it could always be worse.”
Beal’s voice is always impressive. Even with few backing instruments, his voice is pretty on songs like “Monotony” and “Sambo Joe From the Rainbow.” His voice is gorgeous and haunting on these songs, but he can quickly change it to a throaty howl for songs like “Take Me Away.” This kind of dexterity makes his voice a rare and special instrument.
“Acousmatic Sorcery” is a short album, only about 45 minutes long, and the musical range of the songs is decidedly limited. But, despite all of this — or, more precisely, because of Beal’s voice — it’s an exciting showcase of a unique musical talent.