Ben Pobjoy

Polishing a Rising Star

Willis Earl Beal's "Nobody Knows"

Ben Pobjoy
Ben Pobjoy

On his new album “Nobody Knows,” Chicago born artist Willis Earl Beal has made some changes. His musical past is anything but stable and his first effort, 2012’s “Acoustimatic Sorcery,” reflects that fact. Recorded on a busted karaoke machine in a small apartment in Albuquerque, between Beal’s medical discharge from the military and a stint living with his grandmother on the South Side of Chicago, the record is all garbled vocals and chaotic guitar. It is a soundtrack of a wandering soul, at once casual and pleadingly desperate, one man’s struggle to express his inner world through music.

For Beal every performance is a conversation, a specific and personal event. The structure of the songs doesn’t matter, at least not really. Take the track “Evening’s Kiss,” from his debut. On the album it’s slow, almost whispered. The vocals lilt over minimalist guitar that often bends out of tune The lyrics needle and burrow; they don’t punch, and they don’t cut. When Beal performed the same song live on Jools Holland’s British talk show in 2012, he turned it into something completely different. It’s similarly minimal but also more impassioned, a bellowed, wrenching anthem of loss and abandonment. His voice pounds like a freight train—all stone and soul and deep, billowing pain. The tears he sheds towards the end of the performance feel like a testament to the song’s newfound emotional weight.

What he shares rises from within him and bursts forth, ignoring conventional formats. It makes sense. He honed his craft singing a cappella on El platforms and street corners around Chicago. A rough cut of the opening to “Nobody Knows,” “Wavering Lines,” is available on YouTube, and is markedly different from later performances (notably a live one at 2012’s Pitchfork festival) and the recorded track on the album. It all seems to flow from some inexhaustible inner source, the words, even the tune, some ongoing dialogue between Beal and his disjointed muses—his loneliness, his need for searing catharsis—that frame his world. Listening to Beal always feels a little voyeuristic, like it isn’t meant for our ears. Or at least it did.

With “Nobody Knows,” Beal has an actual album on his hands: less of a heartfelt confessional and more of a meat-and-potatoes, “this was recorded in a studio” album. In a way, it suffers from this streamlined approach. Sure, it’s more tuneful and polished and there are tighter vocal harmonies and arrangements. But somehow it feels like Beal is ascribing to a set image, one that he may not have drawn up for himself.

This is not to say that “Nobody Knows” is a bad album. It isn’t. In many ways it is far better than “Acoustomatic Sorcery.” Beal utlilizes his expressive, soulful roar to far greater effect and the tighter arrangements and instrumentation make for a smoother listening experience. He can sing, and there are no doubts about that here. Album opener “Wavering Lines” skips and stings, slow-burning and defiant. Tracks like “Too Dry to Cry” are modern spirituals: rhythmic, sparse, and eerie, littered with handclaps and non-lyrical vocal gymnastics. “Coming Through,” which features Cat Power, is all 70s soul: chiming chords, walking bass line, confident and sunny.
Beal is rising, as he should. He’s a rare talent, owing as much to Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers as he does to Tom Waits and his musical experimentation; owing as much to Delta Blues greats as he does to spoken word pioneers like Gil Scott Heron. Deep emotion is woven into every rambling utterance. He’s a poetic and soulful showman in his own obscure sideshow. With his sophomore effort, however, the old fear rises: that faced with the specter of success and courting the mainstream consciousness, Beal’s own intensely unique and off-kilter style might become muted and warped into some pale imitation.

Luckily with this record that’s not the case; it’s only a step away from Beal at his roughest. It’s varied, and a more polished approach to recording. The essential spirit is still there. It just doesn’t feel as spontaneous, as earnest, or as necessary. Beal is making surer music now, for fans, for record companies, but thankfully still for himself, and that’s what keeps this record fresh. So in the end, if this rise eclipses his meandering beginnings, so be it.

It’s just a bittersweet farewell.

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