Willis Earl Beal knows blues, perhaps the worst type of blues imaginable: the unanswerable existential sort. It’s a type of blues he tries to extricate using author Ralph Ellison’s definition of the blues: “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it…” In layman’s terms, it’s essentially picking at a scab for healing.
Beal howls at his pain with the ferocity of a lone, wounded wolf. It’s an ugly sight, but it sounds so harrowing. So poetic. Beal has some of the best recorded vocal performances in recent memory on Nobody Knows.
It’s also very fitting that the album starts with Beal singing a cappella on “Wavering Lines” as it features him wrestling against inner pains, following along with this blues idea. Plus, Beal can sing his ass off; he can easily carry on by himself for a minute or two. He sings “I’ve been left in the dust like a thing from the past/But I go where I please I don’t need no gas,” lines that serve as both a biography and a synopsis. Beal wanders; the instruments just follow him around. This may be why it sounds a bit dull at times, especially in the one-two punch of the drowsy ambience of “Everything Unwinds” and the steady march of “Burning Bridges”.
The “dust” implicates a recurring theme in Nobody Knows and Beal’s interviews: anonymity. After a stint with the Army, Beal was homeless in Albuquerque, where he recorded some material on karaoke boxes (which later became part of his lo-fi Acousmatic Sorcery debut). He’s since got a little extra money in his pocket thanks to a record deal with XL Recordings, but despite the come-up he’s said he repeatedly in interviews how much he dislikes fame.
It’s not like he’s completely introverted though. When Beal moved into his grandmother’s house in Chicago, he sent out flyers stating that he’d sing to whoever called the house. He’s interested in intimacy, but detests the nonsense and hype that comes around it.
Sadly, separating the two isn’t so simple. Worse off, intimacy requires someone to make themselves vulnerable to a significant other. In other words, it’s a farewell to the anonymity he craves. This worries Beal, and as a defense, he reduces relationships to a distinctive earthiness and ugliness. On “Coming Through”—Beal’s duet with Cat Power that’s backed by the guitar stabs of ‘60s R&B—Beal sings “Everybody got a cause, everybody separated but there are no separated spaces,” articulating paranoia about having his identity intertwining with this social consciousness.
Later on the unashamedly sexual and needy “Too Dry to Cry”, Beal sings “In my one-room shack, you know we can’t go wrong/I got nine hard inches like a pitchfork prong/So honey lift up your dress and help me sing this song.” He gets what he wants, but there’s still that damning image of the devil with his pitchfork.
This thought ties in with what seems to be Beal’s main source of satisfaction, which is reclaiming that sense of anonymity through religion. It must be, because he at least sounds like he’s trying to spiritually transcend when he references it. “Disintegrating” turns what sounds like a standard blues riff into something more aquatic. He’s not hanging at the speakeasy drowning in sorrows, but instead drowning in holy water. Beal sounds sullen as he remarks “I’ll go past it, I can see your panties white/I’m a desperate man,” but the soaring hook—“Disintegrating over you/But this wall I’m behind/You know I’m breaking through”—an orgasm of the religious and spiritual sort feels interchangeable.
“Ain’t Got No Love” is Nobody Knows at its rawest; chances are you aren’t going to hear the words “JESUS CHRIST” yelled with this much conviction in a major release for a while. Beal also evokes a special kind of beauty on “Blue Escape”, where he restrains his voice to a level that’s both haunting and alluring over wobbly strings and reverberating piano chords. That baptismal color of blue is also present throughout.
Is it all a little alienating? Definitely. The at-times obtuse nature of the lyrical themes and his commitment to this downtrodden, loner tone can be frustrating to some. But you have to remember Willis Earl Beal is an enigma first and a singer second, and that fact is driven home as he wanders into static at the album’s end. He insists you accept him as he is, whether he wants to be here or not.
4 out of 5
You can buy Nobody Knows on Amazon.