Even if genuine, Willis Earl Beal’s backstory seems hammy: ex-soldier loses his girl and ends up homeless, turns to the Chicago coffee shop scene to pursue his art. It was enough to catch editors’ eyes, especially when backed up with a solid if not exemplary debut album in Acousmatic Sorcery, but as Beal’s story unwound it became more interesting. Since that release he’s talked of being trapped in his own myth, “a hipster who decided to be Jack Kerouac … I never imagined I’d continue to be homeless.” So though he’s no longer homeless, his second album, the intriguingly titled Nobody knows., gives us the chance to see just what part of Beal is real and which is not.
One part that is real is that voice, a raspy, brooding, from-the-gut monster of a thing. It’s not so much the quality of his singing that makes Beal stand out but that even though it could be enough to make him a genuine star (as his ill-fated attempt on American Idol shows), he employs it mainly for the perverse. There is no romance here, no tears or kisses just a sticky tension that he maintains from the stunning a cappella opening song ‘Wavering Lines’.
Eerie violence runs throughout Nobody knows.: ‘Ain’t Got No Love’ sends chills with its refrain explaining “I ain’t no love cause I slapped it around” and there’s the endowed invitation on ‘Too Dry To Cry’: “I got nine hard inches like a pitchfork prong, so honey lift up your dress and help me sing this song”. With the line between performance and personality already blurred it’s never clear if Beal is disturbed or if he just wants to disturb, which only makes it more captivating.
Whether real or not the menace that Beal shows on this album is fiercer than on his debut. Here it is in high definition as the arrangements and productions stay out of the way, allowing Beal to double track his voice and sing on top of himself maintaining a threatening intimacy even when he’s belting it out. The mid-album trio of ‘Too Dry to Dry’, ‘What’s the Deal’ and ‘Ain’t Got No Love’, are Beal at his best: 15 minutes of cinematic, brooding and manic magic where he ranges from helpless to threatening.
The darkness of the subject and tone is uncompromising but there is a range to Beal’s song writing. The wallowing beauty of ‘Everything Unwinds’, shuffling, muted- bass of ‘Hole In the Roof’, which calls to mind Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’, and even the subpar jaunt with Cat Power ‘Coming Through’, show that Beal is more than a one-act play.