Willis Earl Beal is tired of your shit. The Chicago DIY workaholic seems to view the world as an elaborate game of dress-up, and he’s always been forward in interviews about the dubious perspective. As he concluded in the liner notes of his debut LP from last year, Acousmatic Sorcery, “I am a primary example as to why anybody can do anything they want to do within the constructs of conventional civilized society.”
To that end, not much has changed for Beal in the past year. On his new album’s second track, “Coming Through”, he practically doubles down on this sentiment with a preliminary thesis speech: “A lot of people think that the lives they lead are a truth. They think that what they believe is the truth. They think that what they see is the truth. Well I’m your boy Willis Earl Beal, and I don’t believe that.” What he does believe is still unclear, not even to himself. While Beal’s world-weary frustration lingers, nearly every other element from his debut has been reversed on the bizarre, overpowering Nobody knows.
Acousmatic Sorcery branded Beal as a restlessly creative soul capable of turning any lo-fi song fragment into something great with only the heart in his voice, and a potential successor to Daniel Johnston’s outsider music throne. (Beal recently chalked this up to XL’s plan to market him as an “idiot savant,” which left him unsatisfied, but not bitter). His second XL release makes clear that the Johnston-successor role, great as it sounds, doesn’t interest him. Only two minutes into Nobody knows., when a pristine string section enters over Beal’s voice on “Wavering Lines”, Beal abandons lo-fi entirely.
“Coming Through”, which features backing vocals from Beal’s former tourmate Chan Marshall (bka Cat Power), is an upbeat jumping off point with a candy-sweet surface. But when he fades out of the track with a kneejerk (“Don’t worry about it baby, it’s gonna be alright”), it ultimately reads as a foreboding disclaimer instead of hopeful. Every track that follows – 13 in total, adding up to almost an hour of occasionally superfluous material – is either slower, bleaker, less rhythmic, or all of those things.
On the album’s rock bottom, the first-half closer “What’s the Deal”, Beal channels Screamin’ Jay Hawkins over deep synth belches and a low, ominous church bell. “Open your eyes/ You’re wearing a disguise/ Just drink your Scotch/ Take your dumb ass to bed,” he belts in the most frustrated moment on an album full of frustration for answers, and even more frustration towards others not asking the questions. It’s simultaneously wild, confused, disillusioned, and yet once again so packed with talent that it’s exciting.
Nobody knows. feels more like a second debut than a true sophomore outing, one that sets out to prove to Acousmatic skepticists that there’s more to Beal’s gift than injecting his soul-scoured words into rudimentarily structured songs and beats. It’s not a mulligan by any means, but more a second round of laying all his raw talent out on the table before the unraveling of his mystery begins. Beal is inseparable from his much-documented backstory right now, and the big turning point in that conversation is yet to come, but Nobody knows. shows from a different angle how gratifying it might be when it does.
Essential Tracks: “Coming Through”, “Burning Bridges”, and “The Flow”