Willis Earl Beal‘s life is a flame to the moth of hype. After a medical discharge from the army, Beal moved to Albuquerque as a vagrant and left CD-Rs of his music in public spaces while working a night shift security job. He also left self-portraits around town to attract a girlfriend, but got a contract with XL Recordings’ imprint Hot Charity instead, culminating in the no-fi rumblings of a mixtape disguised as a debut, Acousmatic Sorcery in 2012.
His second album, Nobody Knows, actually sees the sidewalk and street chanter take to a proper studio, starting slowly, but delivers the goods later, putting him in a similar league to some of the slow burning artists he’s beginning to collab with, i.e. Cat Power. And as with his earlier songs, he’s full of cryptic poetic musings.
CP arrives early, on the record’s second track, “Coming Through,” Beal hopping on a soapbox, preaching against armchair activism, self-righteousness, and capitalism with a standard, two-chord soul-pop groove backing him up. While a redux version of “Wavering Lines,” a tune that began before Acousmatic Sorcery in 2011, provides Beal’s opening curtain. A largely a capella gospel chant with a fairly standard vagabond message, it mentions his “gin-soaked heart,” and lists the pros and cons of life on the road:
At this point, Nobody Knows is leaps and bounds beyond Top-40, but still nothing earth-shattering. But Beal’s super legit bellows keep your interest. “Burning Bridges” would fit a millennial Lexus commercial, or a rainy, second act rom-com scene. It develops with glockenspiel, melodica, choral vocals and horns into a beautifully melancholic twist on the idiom on burning bridges – Beal’s not cutting off old ties, but keeping his woman safe from pursuers:
His vintage-soul pipes couple with the crisp instrumentation in a similar way to RJD2‘s use of Marion Black on “Smoke and Mirrors,” except, of course, that there’s no sampling here (although it’s just as solid of a match of classic and modern sounds).
Semi-single “Too Dry to Cry” features more yowled, blues vocals over a slightly-detuned guitar and heavy boom-chuck, giving a drunken feel to Beal’s itching for sex. There’s one middle school-worthy dick-size line, but Beal’s low income twist on immense, horny frustration is a beacon of light in the current sea of lazy rape culture puns (a la “Blurred Lines“, or everything by Lil Wayne): [LISTEN]
To be swayed, skeptics need only listen to “Ain’t Got No Love” to hear Beal completely unleash his most harshly-growled nihilisms, or possibly closing disappointment-R&B jam “The Flow.” Some of his studio experimentation flops, like the random last chord on the title track, but usually nails the point down – like these final, spoken lyrics of the entire album: