Willis Earl Beal - Nobody Knows
There’s a fascinating story behind the enigma that is Willis Earl Beal, one that ranges across the United States, and from homelessness to success. Everything really started for Beal after he was reduced to living on the streets for a short time. His seemingly meteoric rise began after he started leaving self recorded CD-Rs lying around various street corners in Albuquerque, found time to audition for the American X-Factor - he dropped out at the bootcamp stage - before being featured in a magazine and releasing his debut album in 2012. Since then he’s toured the world and found time to create his follow-up Nobody Knows. And showing how far he’s come, trendy producer Rodaidh McDonald - who’s worked with King Krule and Savages among others - has helped produce the new collection of eclectic tracks.
Beals’ voice alone takes the first two minutes of the album, pure acapella, before strings and a low vocal harmony enter the fray. ‘Wavering Lines’ is a brave and intriguing entrance. The smooth soul of ‘Coming Through’ is enhanced by some spot on vocal support from Cat Power. It’s at this early point that you already feel you’re listening to someone with life experience well beyond their actual years, and ‘Everything Unwinds’ only solidifies that feeling. As you get into the marching beat of ‘Burning Bridges’ and eerie ‘Disintegrating’, with its voices in the static, any thoughts of pinning Beal down to a genre are gone, the music is too interesting, too good. The blues make an appearance on ‘Too Dry To Cry’, albeit with modern influences and lyrical content. ‘What’s The Deal’ is a genuinely uncomfortable track: it’s abrasive, on the edge, and wilfully unlikeable, and while the blend of organ and electronic on ‘Ain’t Got No Love’ are easier to listen to, despite Beals’ aggressive vocal, it’s not until ‘White Noise’ strips it all back that you re-enter a comfort zone. It turns out this is the slow wind down to the end, slightly less crazy and more sedate than what’s gone before, although there’s still something detached about ‘Hole In The Roof’ and the unsettling ‘Blue Escape’. Ending with ‘Nobody knows’ and ‘The Flow’, two of the most conventional songs on the album, you’re never sure what to expect right until the end.
It’s a good job Beal ducked out of The X Factor when he did - his music is not something that Simon Cowell could understand. It’s not an album for the faint hearted; it’s challenging in places, both lyrically and musically, and skips genres like no tomorrow. He builds and constructs lyrical layers, and sonically takes you to extremes. But, wow what a ride. Beal imbues Nobody Knows with spirit and risk, and largely pulls it off. The (very) odd misstep aside this is an album as genuinely fascinating as Beals’ own story.