Music Reviews
Nobody knows.

Willis Earl Beal Nobody knows.

(HXC / XL Recordings) Rating - 7/10

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. Hearing him give new life to Sorcery cuts Swing on Low and Away My Silent Lover got me more than pumped to hear new recorded material from this clearly blossoming artist. But while his charged live presence did help guide my expectations for his new album, the biggest hint as to what to expect was the word emblazoned on his shirt: “Nobody.”

This isn’t just because Beal’s follow-up record would inevitably be titled Nobody knows. On stage, Beal embodies “Nobody” like a character, an enigmatic reflection of pain and isolation rather than a person, and his latest album is meant to be Beal’s attempt at capturing the essence of “Nobody” on tape. And while Nobody knows. is the most professionally recorded and produced album Beal has released, the nihilistic presence of “Nobody” is undeniable throughout. Though Beal’s voice is as life-affirming as ever, most of Nobody knows. is a black hole of misery, frustration, and detachment translated into a truly beautiful work.

When you first start the album, however, odds are you’ll feel you’ve been horribly misled, as the first two tracks on the album deliver a surprisingly somber and even polite tone. Opening track Wavering Lines, for instance, is a cathartic and gritty expulsion of blues muck when Beal performs it live, but on the record, it comes off like a lullaby, with nothing but a soft string accompaniment to help it glide wistfully along. It’s a striking piece in its own right (as anything fully centered on Beal’s vocals tends to be), but hearing lyrics like Got a bladder full of piss that I’m gonna let go / ‘cause I ain’t no prince, I go down with the flow are much more effective when hysterically howled than gently crooned. The following track, Coming Through, does little to pick things up. Though its sunshine pop flavor and Phil Spector aesthetics make for a breezy pop tune, you can’t help but feel that Beal is a bit out of his element with this type of song, and the presence of Cat Power’s Chan Marshall (whom Beal toured with last year) adds little to make it shine.

But shortly after this bubbly duet comes to a close, Beal’s true intentions behind Nobody knows. begin to reveal themselves, and they prove to be far more sinister. Seeing as how this is Beal’s first “studio” album free of any home-recorded songs or experiments, it would only be natural that the singer would take full advantage of his XL-funded recording budget. But pomp and flashiness has never been Beal’s style, so Beal instead uses his studio resources to create dense, brooding environments for his bleak – yet soulful – compositions. Like his debut, most tracks on Nobody knows. are stripped down to only a few elements, but it’s the rich nuances throughout – the warm, mournful strings that broaden the otherwise sparse Blue Escape and title track; the static-laden transmissions that stir up Disintegrating; the phantom-like moans that caress the edges of acoustic slow-burner Everything Unwinds – that lend more crushing emotional weight and musical depth to Beal’s songs.

And don’t think that Beal is attempting to come off as any friendlier by utilizing more studio sheen. Though sensitive strings and pristine backing coo’s allow for some rays of light to break through the boarded up windows on occasion, it’s evident that Beal still hasn’t lost his ear for the gross and atonal. Take the filth-encrusted sewer that is What’s the Deal, for instance, where Beal’s voice cries out in manic desperation over bursts of jarring industrial noise. Or how about Ain’t Got No Love, where Beal goes into full Tom Waits mode, barking and cackling about his sexual frustrations over a dissolving, carnival-esque organ melody. But Beal is at his most effective when going into full, dirty blues mode, with the albums finest example being Too Dry to Cr, a bourbon-soaked bruiser where Beal fully embodies this fiendish, “big-bad wolf” persona as he vents his desperation for release (Don’t leave me hanging like a spider with no fly, he confesses to the bait he’s trying to court).

There’s no denying that the elements that make up Nobody knows. are profoundly captivating, from the album's rich sonic detail to Beal’s reliably powerhouse vocals and personality. But as refined as these elements are, they still don’t quite add up to make the excellent record that many of us are still waiting for Beal to finally make. Many of the tracks on Nobody knows. tend to overstay their welcome after a good three minutes, and even though 13 tracks isn’t especially long for an album, the lack of momentum or dynamic shifts throughout the album make it feel much longer than it actually is. Beal undoubtedly has a unique ear for melody and distinct approach for song craft that helps him stand out, but he still has obstacles to scale in terms of songwriting. I have no doubt in my mind that Willis Earl Beal has a truly fantastic album in him – he’s too vital of a musical presence to not – and while Nobody knows. certainly isn’t that record, I have a strong hunch we’re getting closer and closer.