Release Date: Sep 10, 2013
Record label: XL Recordings
Genre(s): Gospel, Religious, Noise-Rock, Black Gospel
No longer is Willis Earl Beal wearing the moth-eaten suit of a crotchety bluesman and whispering about “smoking that chronic” like a time-travelling Dr Dre on the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s, as he was on last year’s unsettling debut ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’. That was hobo-skronk recorded on a budget karaoke machine. Instead, on this the follow-up, he’s morphed into a demonic lounge lizard, laying down one of the most commanding vocal performances of the year, while occasionally making pop concessions so deft you wonder why he didn’t stick it out with the X Factor auditions.
Modern-day troubadour and genre-flipping songsmith Willis Earl Beal had one of the more compelling debut albums of 2012 with Acousmatic Sorcery, a collection of tunes whose emotional gravity outweighed their lo-fi presentation. With sophomore follow-up Nobody Knows, Beal returns with a much slicker recording style, but with the same shifting restlessness that marked his debut, moving from throaty gospel pop to dirty blues rock to noisy experiments as the album progresses. Never quite as unhinged as the home recordings that made up his debut, the songs on Nobody Knows all benefit from the clarity of a well-oiled studio, but Beal's self-production (credited as "Nobody" in part of a hard-to-read narrative that flows through the album and its liner notes) keeps things somewhat loose even in the most defined moments.
Willis Earl Beal is a 29-year-old Chicagoan who arrives with a tumultuous back story encompassing a stint in the army, a succession of dispiriting jobs and a period spent living on the streets. His press coverage so far has tended to latch on to that latter detail, suggesting that Beal has the potential to be a younger, less hirsute and more presentable version of Seasick Steve. Yet perhaps the most intriguing and most telling part of Beal’s background is his participation in the American version of The X Factor: Beal got through to the boot camp stage but was promptly shown the door after getting drunk and forgetting his lines.
The modern day soul world is a scary place, full of obscure Mercury Prize nominees destined for the coffee table and those beige records that your auntie sings along to when she hears them on Radio 2. You know the ones, found in between that Police song about the red lights and that Katie Melua one about bikes. Willis Earl Beal has come to save us from this hell and take soul back where it belongs.
“Has Beal lost his damn mind?” If you’re not asking yourself that question by the end of the record, then you obviously weren’t paying attention. There’s a lot of psychotic tension within Willis Earl Beal’s second full length Nobody knows. Half of the record is made up of songs like “Too Dry To Cry,” which have the tone of a street-corner gospel projected through a Raindogs speaker, while the other songs such as “Ain’t Got No Love” sound like a schizophrenic Cerberus that can somehow harmonize each of its demonic dog head’s respectable split-personalities into a fiendish chorus (that’s a good thing).
Nobody Knows is probably the album Willis Earl Beal knew he had always wanted to make. And for those who heard his debut release, 2012's Acousmatic Sorcery, and pegged him solely as an outsider artist, it's probably not the one you expected..
Acousmatic Sorcery, the 2012 debut by Chicago songwriter Willis Earl Beal, was an album of mysterious, crudely recorded folk and blues that wouldn't have gotten half the attention it did if it weren't for Beal's backstory. An army vet drifting from Albuquerque to his grandma's house on Chicago's South Side, Beal released his earliest recordings via CD-R, usually accompanied by hand-drawn zines, left, as he put it to GQ, "all around the hipster places and the coffee shops"-- places where Beal rightly guessed that people would be drawn to strange, singular art objects that seemed like missives from a subterranean world. If that all sounds calculating, it's because it was: Like his hero Tom Waits, Beal presented himself as a savant-like character who just crawled out of the swamp but was in reality a savvy performer aware of peoples' longstanding fascination with outlaws, boogeymen, and characters who present themselves as forces of nature rather than products of society.
Willis Earl Beal may have first caught my attention with last year’s Acousmatic Sorcery – an intimate, soulful debut of songs Beal self-recorded so crudely, it would make Robert Pollard cringe – but it was seeing him perform (not in person, unfortunately) where he first demanded it. Though much of Sorcery dealt in well-tempered, softly-strummed musings, nearly all the footage I’ve seen of him performing since releasing the album has been anything but restrained. Often donning a black cape, black t-shirt, and the darkest shades you’ve never seen, Beal struts across the stage like he’s possessed by a whisky soaked demon, grooving alone on stage to his raw-cut backing tracks as he howls maniacally with his powerful, too-soulful-to-handle voice.
A year after Hot Charity released Willis Earl Beal's self-recorded song sketches as his debut, the enigmatic Chicago songwriter finally gets his chance to show what he can do in a proper studio. Nobody Knows is a more complete, fleshed-out version of Beal's vision, replacing his former no-fi folk with ominous, gritty blues and soul (not to mention a guest spot by Cat Power), but it's still a work-in-progress. Beal continues to frustrate: his hyper-self-aware attempt to present himself as a grizzled, world-weary hobo (à la Tom Waits) at times verges on self-parody, especially considering he's still in his 20s.
Sometimes genre tropes act like a strait-jacket. Blues singers, for example, might feel pressure to use walking bass lines and prominent guitars. Not Willis Earl Beal. He may sound like a blues singer, but he doesn’t have much time for restrictive orthodoxy. “I go where I please/ I don’t need ….
Willis Earl Beal is tired of your shit. The Chicago DIY workaholic seems to view the world as an elaborate game of dress-up, and he’s always been forward in interviews about the dubious perspective. As he concluded in the liner notes of his debut LP from last year, Acousmatic Sorcery, “I am a primary example as to why anybody can do anything they want to do within the constructs of conventional civilized society.” To that end, not much has changed for Beal in the past year.
One of the most vital records of 2012, Willis Earl Beal’s debut boasted emotive lo-fi blues ditties and an early glimpse at what could become one of the greatest singing voices of a generation. He proved himself a powerhouse of honest sonic tableaux, with his addictive sounds capturing snapshots of his Chicago life. And what a life – he brought with him a backs tory that sounded more fiction than fact, which only added to his allure.
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.
Gifted Chicagoan Willis Earl Beal is enigmatic, unpredictable and completely fascinating, three virtues that have made up his entire appeal so far in a nutshell. And in contrast to his often fragmented and lo-fi debut ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’, ‘Nobody Knows’ finds Beal offering his wares in a more persuadable fashion.As unfair as it would be to attribute opener ‘Wavering Lines’ with corniness, Beal’s a cappella is excessively smooth and the production uncomfortably slick. It’s world’s away from his early incarnation.
No rapper knows the value of a guest verse the way 2 Chainz does: appearing on other artists’ songs, and dominating, has been crucial to his ascent over the last couple of years. “Might not be your favorite artist/But your favorite artist got a verse from me,” he raps proudly on Fabolous’s ….