Principles Of A Protagonist, a free EP recently released by Chicago born Willis Earl Beal, is beautiful and gloriously imperfect. Unlike the majority of today’s mainstream music, this five song record requires time and patience to be fully appreciated. There are no catchy jingles, just emotion. This is a stark and welcome contrast from what we’re used to. The EP features five new versions of tracks from his debut album Acoustic Sorcery, and will act as a soundtrack to a short animated film, also called Principles Of A Protagonist, which is expected to be unveiled later this month.
Beal himself is a fascinating character and his story seems to add depth to his music. At 20 years old he was released from the US Army for medical reasons and spent time living homeless on the streets of Chicago and Albuquerque, where he sung acapella and worked in poorly paid jobs. He was eventually signed by Hot Charity records who discovered a CD he left in a local art gallery. The intimate sound of this record really seems to have its roots in Beal’s struggle.
However, while the songs have Beal’s unique sound at their core, they are all very different from the next. Opening track, ‘Away My Silent Lover’ is a driving, electronic song full of suspense, which sets the rather mournful tone of the album with the first line “I just wanted to be so much better than me”.
‘Evening’s Kiss’, a reworking of Beal’s most famous song from his first album is the kind of song which makes you stop what you’re doing and ponder things. A potential tear-jerker, this outstanding song is the highlight of one of the most interesting and original pieces of music I’ve heard in a while. ‘Swing On Low’ is grainy, and of all the songs, the most homemade sounding, though not to its detriment. The song feels fresh, like it’s being played live for you on your headphones. The final track, ‘Cosmic Queries’ is haunting and almost ominous. The vocals are Goldfrapp-esque and the song feels like the crescendo of the emotionally charged 25 minutes. Something about this last song is epic in its own way.
He has been described as ‘lo-fi’ and ‘new soul’ but labelling Beal is pointless. This EP is plain good. It’s stand out quality being the powerful, melancholic sound of what the man himself describes as “just an old time soul voice from the choir“.
For me overall, listening to this was a straight up challenge. The more I listened, the more it stretched me. I felt like Beal was reaching out and saying ‘are you gonna to try and understand this or not?’ (but in a Chigago accent obviously). Principles Of A Protagonist is a glimpse into the character of a fascinating man. In the age of auto tune and electronic everything, there will surely soon come a time when raw, soulful music like this gains the popularity it deserves. Watch this space.