opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
What the hell is Willis Earl Beal doing? Doesn’t he know how difficult it is to make a career out of being completely miserable? I mean just look at these song titles: “Ain’t Got No Love”, “Burning Bridges”, “Too Dry to Cry”? It’s the kind of brooding exterior that gives you pause before you push play. Thankfully for us, Beal isn’t after our pity, just our ears. Sure, he’s down in the dumps, but he also happens to be a deeply expressive fellow with a versatile voice and a killer record collection, and it makes him that much easier to root for.
Beal is a soul singer through and through, but the darkness in his tone and his words place him in some rather ambivalent territory for which you’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary. His debut album, last year’s Acousmatic Sorcery, was a ghostly, calculatingly uncooperative effort that earned him something of a cult following. Nobody Knows is Beal’s follow-up to that delightful little oddity, and it’s certainly more accessible, if only for the fact that it isn’t as preoccupied with self-obscuration.
Beal’s backstory is fascinating; you’d have to be pretty soulless not to cheer him on. His twenties have been what you could call nomadic, and included periods of military service, unsteady employment, and homelessness. Informed by this hardship, Nobody Knows carries the weight of a near-lifetime of experience.
In true vagrant fashion, the album enters from what seems like nowhere. On opener “Wavering Lines”, Beal creeps in from the dark a capella with his sooty, auric croon, lamenting “I’ve been pedaling for miles/Feel a thousand years old.” And you believe him. He’s all on his own for two minutes before he’s joined by a cello and shirking electronic buzzes, but by that point these additions don’t matter. The song is his. From there there’s Motown-tinted cut “Coming Through.” It features Cat Power, who, along with Bob Dylan, has undoubtedly helped to give shape of Beal’s ballads.
These first two songs are a decidedly kind introduction to Nobody Knows. Unafraid to broach uncomfortable topics, this album is at its best when it’s trying to unsettle you. Beal really lets go on “Ain’t Got No Love”, methodically intensifying the shuffling percussion and gothic orchestration to match vocals that will turn your insides to ice. It’s a train wreck of a song; you’re horrified with yourself for not looking away. But Beal can be just as effective with a whisper. “Everything Unwinds” is subtler but no less sinister, meticulously documenting the urban desolation: “I’m dancing in the alley with rust in my soul/Facing all the dumpsters with no particular goal.”
Beal’s musical idiosyncrasies have been disbursed somewhat, and Nobody Knows does occasionally flirt with the formulaic. “Blue Escape” is a weepy ballad that feels like its ticking off boxes to tug the ol’ heartstrings, and “Hole in the Roof” is a bluesy stomp that amuses rather than engages.
Overly ironed out junctures aside, this record is so unconventional it’s spooky. The anti-gospel of “What’s the Deal?” is a death knell, with Beal singing to everybody and nobody from an empty pulpit: “While you listen to the clock tick/You don’t know shit, and you never will.” He’s juggling some very guttural emotions here, but a small handful of the songs on Nobody Knows suggest that Beal is set on putting his demons to rest and soldiering on. On the fittingly-titled “Disintegrating”, his voice ebbs out from clippings from TV news, crumbling piano shapes and a mountain of static. Clear-eyed, bluesy and light footed, it’s a rare instance where Beal allows some light to peer through the blinds.
“The Flow” ends things on a decidedly hopeful note, with a hook that teems with the warmth of Sam Cooke. “Just go with the flow,” Beal intones, with an unmistakable optimism that no other track on here even implies. Although Beal has demystified his sound, the notion that Nobody Knows is more a passing sight than a rest stop is pretty unshakeable. As in life, constancy doesn’t seem to be his long suit, and one can only live in the dark for so long. [B]