It’s no wonder why authenticity persists as the most resonating quality of black music. For recorded music, the seeds of this date back to the beginnings of pop radio, when black artists were stifled as white cover artists like Pat Boone would rework any successful R&B tracks to make them fit for playing on white stations. The line of authenticity has waxed and waned throughout the decades, with commercialism routinely attempting to dull the identity and creativity being displayed via soul, funk, rap, R&B, etc. Only occasionally does commercialism find authentic black identities that fit a lucrative ideal, and most of that has occurred during unique boons in pop culture in the late `60s/early `70s and mid- to late-’90s — from Sly and Jimi Hendrix to Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, from Gil Scott-Heron to Biggie and 2pac.
As the Internet has caused commercialism to become an industry nearly entirely disparate from unique identities like the ones above, you have to do a little searching to find that type of authenticity. If that’s your quest, Willis Earl Beal‘s Acousmatic Sorcery is your auspicious answer. Maybe auspicious isn’t quite the right word; naïve is more like it. A better bet would be both. For only someone who was performing on train stops throughout Chicago as of a few months ago could put out a record this raw and captivating. Only somebody so humbled and naïve could so effectively encapsulate decades of black musical tradition in less than 40 minutes.
Instead of a more polished, GarageBand-style DIY production or bombastic bedroom DJs pervading pop culture, Acousmatic Sorcery‘s upside-down ethos hearkens back to Son House clapping and crooning “Grinnin’ on your Face,” or Robert Johnson walking into what used to be a hotel room, facing a corner and prodigiously pulling together bass lines and blues melodies in 1936.
Through missed notes and harsh melodies, Beal is unflinching, taking that zeal and tackling turns at blues hymns (“Take Me Away”), Scott-Heron-esque spoken word (“Cosmic Queries”), more straightforward folk (“Monotony“), heartbreaking narratives (“Away My Silent Lover”), something like rap (“Swing On Low” — “I’m an educated chap / Microphone is my tool“) and persevering lullabies (“Bright Copper Noon”).
While today’s commercial and indie markets cross over less and less, it’s easier for identities in black music to remain true, yet Beal’s extremely humble beginnings make it impossible for him to go anywhere but up in terms of polish and production — not to mention his street-performer instincts have lead him to display his phone number on the album’s packaging so listeners can call and ask him to sing a song for them, which is a trademark of his as a local performer.
Working in favor of Beal remaining humble though: this album isn’t a head-turner. Its meager melodies and harsh pathos are more likely to leave people confused, defensive and insecure. It’s not quite right to call this pop music; it’s more blues than anything else. As such, that emotional and sonic confrontation likely to scare most away is the best quality of the record. Sure, there are stories with mystical elements and self-empowering words of wisdom, but more memorable are the laments where strife can be felt through the crackles in his voice and the powerful performances that promise the most discomforting form of catharsis. His most heartbreaking moments on tape are his most compelling.
In this difficult nature, the music is indulgent in just about every tradition of black music. Its spontaneous nature gives it the improvisational feel of jazz. The laments are homely and heartfelt enough to fit in alongside slave or civil rights hymns, filled with call and response and a reliable cadence. The backings are simplistic and driven by rhythm, sometimes cringe-worthy but never stale, impossible to lose track of. This unpretentious ambition is unheard of and incapable from anybody lacking Beal’s grit and modest songwriting.
The sparing abrasiveness and rough-hewn songwriting can require a listener as stubborn as the songwriter’s naive ingenuity. The recordings are imperfect, blemished in ways you can’t fake. This probably says something about the unchanging nature of society’s flaws and the million-dollar commercial industries covering up emotionally confrontational artists like Beal, who is experiencing those flaws. But this record is too homely and humble in directives to be broadened out like that in discussion.
Plain and simple: If you’re a listener looking for a personal, affecting listen that will challenge on a deeper level, you’ll find solace somewhere in this record, if not from beginning to end, as you’ll be hard-pressed to find a contemporary recording more authentic than this.