Unearthed: Willis Earl Beal- Principles of a Protagonist
Posted in Unearthed
Willis Earl Beal's story is more fascinating than any song he has ever written. A brilliantly written profile in the Chicago Reader broke him to the world, and built up a significant amount of hype for his debut record, the lackluster Acoustmatic Sorcery. For those familiar with Beal's story, the album was a fascinating look into the mind of the protagonist. But for everyone else, the record was little more than a collection of mediocre compositions thrown together with little thought to thematic or sonic consistency; simply put, it was a bad album.
For a person that wants a cult following, it makes sense that image might transcend talent. Charles Manson is remembered for the crimes he committed, not the music that he made (which is actually disturbingly good, and in many ways similar to Beal's). His person is fascinating, an intoxicating blend of early 20th Century bluesman and late 2000's Williamsburg denizen that seems entirely alien, but his music fails to captivate. Exactly why the album was so bland and passé remains rather inexplicable. His unique story offered plenty of themes to write songs about, some of which had never been explored before by popular music.
But to blame the failings of Acoustmatic Sorcery on songwriting alone is at least partly missing the point. Some of the songs on the record were truly bad, but many were quite good, and a select few -- the sublime "Evening's Kiss" and "Monotony" in particular -- are superbly written. The blame more rightly falls on the record's shoddy production and weak arrangements, which together undercut Beal's heartfelt compositions. While the lo-fidelity aesthetic of the album adds a closeted brilliance to Beal's best tracks, it generally detracts from the presentation of the record as a whole. The lack of dynamic space on the recordings reduce songs with more than two elements to a mess of sound. Percussion sounds are diminished to an annoying ringing, which as often as not drowns out gorgeous chord progressions.
Principles of a Protagonist seeks to rectify the mistakes Acoustmatic Sorcery made. Not so much a follow up as a redux, the EP presents rearranged and rerecorded versions of five songs off Sorcery, this time glossed up with studio quality sound. Hearing Beal's voice in hi-fidelity is a treat; the many nuances of his powerful cries evoke emotion untapped on his previous outings. His voice populates more suitably arranged songs this time around, unveiling facets of tracks previously buried under tape hiss and other recording artifacts. On Sorcery, "Swing On Low" was almost unlistenable; on Protaganist, it's a highlight.
Acoustmatic Sorcery was lo-fi by necessity; Beal's meager circumstances at the time of its recording prevented him from cutting the tracks in a proper studio, let alone with the guidance of producer. Though it generally detracted from that records production, it did add a kind of magic to certain songs that is lost this time around. "Evenings Kiss" relinquishes its sense of intimacy on Protagonist, and with it its power. But as whole, production changes on the new record are an enormous improvement, allowing casual listeners to appreciate Beal's songs without being familiar with his rather life story.
Principles of a Protagonist won't put Willis Earl Beal closer to being a cult figure, but it will help him gain appreciation from a greater number of listeners. But despite myriad improvements to his sound, Beal's greatest problem remains; his songs are still less interesting than he is. Nothing he put to tape could match the intensity and excitement of his impromtu recitals under bridges in Chicago, nor can it instill the same sense of wonder that his life story perpetuates. Protagonist does however make that sort of quality seem more attainable; Willis Earl Beal may not yet have bottled lightning, but he will.
Principles of a Protagonist is available for free via uTorrent.