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.
Listening to Nobody Knows – Beal’s second album, following last year’s Acousmatic Sorcery – it’s immediately obvious why Beal’s voice would have pricked the ears of Simon Cowell and company. It’s a marvellous thing, able to alternate between a modest whisper and a full-throttled howl, often within the same song.
And yet Nobody Knows is such an ornery work that the idea of Willis Earl Beal belting out Maroon 5 covers on a shiny studio floor seems ludicrous. The album cover depicts the tattoo Beal got while he was homeless: a face with crosses instead of eyes that Beal claims represented his fraught state of mind at the time. It’s also a fair representation of the songs within: minimalist, austere and pained.
The album’s most anomalous track is also its most approachable. Coming Through is a big, swaying soul track that features the album’s only conventional full-band performance. It’s redolent of the blue-eyed soul Cat Power dabbled in on her 2006 album The Greatest; it’s fitting, therefore, that Chan Marshall herself should sing backing vocals on the track’s gorgeous, persuasive chorus. Beal even deigns to incorporate an Isaac Hayes-style spoken-word intro: “A lot of people think that the lives they lead are the truth … Well I’m Willis Earl Beal and I don’t believe them. Listen…” One could imagine hearing it in a branch of Starbucks without causing any of the clientele to spit out their lattes.
Coming Through ends with the reassuring kiss-off “Don’t worry about it baby, it’s going to be alright” but such spiritual serenity is absent from the remainder of Nobody Knows. Beal has described the image on the album cover as “my face, the face of humanity. ‘Nobody knows’ means nobody knows anything”.
The borderline nihilism of that statement manifests itself in Beal’s lyrics, which frequently allude to the singer’s troubled past. On Everything Unwinds, he sings of “rust in my soul / Facing all the dumpsters with no particular goal”, while on Ain’t Got No Love he confesses that he “ain’t got no love ‘cause I slapped it around”; elsewhere, What’s The Deal concludes with perhaps the most beautifully-crooned use of the words “fuck you” in musical history.
The middle section of the album is undeniably quite heavy-going, as melancholic lyric piles upon melancholic lyric and the pace of the songs remains unwaveringly slow. Fortunately, though, the production (a huge step up from Acousmatic Society’s demo-like quality) is sufficiently varied to maintain the listener’s interest. Ghostly synths cast a neon-like glow over Everything Unwind’s two-note acoustic guitar dirge; militaristic drums add to Burning Bridges’ sense of foreboding, while the strange, indecipherable FX that circulates Disintegrating is wonderfully disquieting.
The listener is rewarded amply for making it through Nobody Knows’ middle third by the excellent trio of songs that round off the album. Blue Escape is a beautiful, piano-led lament pulled attractively out of shape by its discordant string section. The finger-clicking title track positively drips with menace. Then, right at the end, is The Flow, which boasts the album’s most compelling melody and something approaching fulfilment on the part of the singer: “I accept my own demise… Just go with the flow”.
In a recent interview, Beal spoke about his dissatisfaction with the music industry in tones suggesting that he might not be in this for the long run. Let’s hope that’s not the case: Nobody Knows should be the start of a brilliant career, not the conclusion of a merely promising one.