Friday, September 13, 2013

Willis Earl Beal: Nobody knows.

Okay, although my husband will be mad at me for announcing this publicly, the main reason I'm reviewing this album this week is because he asked me to. And while the Wikipedia version of Beal's story that he fed me as encouragement is, indeed, enticing (as it includes a military past, homelessness, and discovery though FOUND Magazine - but more on that later), I suspect that there's something more fundamental at play here. After all, it was recently revealed that my dear spouse also has knowledge of/appreciation for noted Chicagoan schizophrenic Wesley Willis and his body of work (which includes songs like "Suck A Pitbull's Dick" and "My Keyboard Got Damaged"). Clearly, then, the man I married simply has a penchant for Chicago-born purveyors of "homemade" music (Rhapsody's classification, not mine), and no power in the verse could prevent him from appreciating this record. Or, you know, something like that.

So let's find out a little more about Beal. An old interview at GQ devotes six paragraphs to the man's background, and although I don't have that kind of time, I can give you the basics. So before the music and the screaming crowds (I'm romanticizing), Beal joined the Army at 24 because, as he puts it, 
"... I'd always been a big Batman fan. And I was a lost person, so I thought, 'Hmm. Maybe I'll become a crime-fighting vigilante for my life.' I designed a Bat Suit and everything. Thought about all the logistics, how it would have to be made out of kevlar, as opposed to that gray shit that Adam West wore."
When debilitating stomach spasms prevented him from continuing, however, he returned to Chicago and worked in the Sears Tower, where, once again, the stomach issues got the best of him and he spent 5 months in the hospital with a colostomy bag. And fast-forwarding through his recovery and more time working at the Sears Tower, Beal then ended up briefly homeless in Albuquerque, an event which, according to an interview with the man at Pigeons and Planes, has been "over-publicized". Or has he puts it, "I’m just another delusional pseudo-hipster. That’s all I am." And like a delusional pseudo-hipster, it was the girlfriend advertisements Beal used to leave around town that caught the attention of FOUND, who ran a cover story and published some of his poetry back in 2009 (incidentally, according to said advertisement, Beal "heavily favor[s] the music of Norah Jones"). There's also an X-Factor audition and the signing to Adele's label in there somewhere, but my timeline is getting fuzzy, so let's just move on to Nobody knows., Beal's second studio release, instead. 

Hokey-doke. Although I haven't heard Beal's debut album, The Chicago Tribune has the good sense to hit him up with the question, "This new album is so confident and honed, it really dispels that idea that your talent is accidental. Was that what you were going for?", and Beal's answer reveals the differences. As he says, 
"That is exactly right. When we went to release "Acousmatic Sourcery," XL selected the most rudimentary and lo-fi tracks. I had no clue how it would work out. They are not bad people, but they had a distinct idea of how they wanted it marketed, that I was an idiot savant, and these were, like, field recordings. When I first heard Lana Del Rey and that orchestral sound, that's what I wanted, what I heard in my head. I got marketed as "Daniel Johnston meets Robert Johnson." I'm not! Nor am I "black music" or a "black musician." I wanted to be a cult novelty, but I never intended this. XL didn't betray me. I signed the contract, but it's the classic situation of being put in a box."
And while this, plus the Norah Jones thing, indicates that Beal and I have fundamentally different musical taste (Lana Del Rey, if you remember, isn't exactly my cup of tea), I can definitely tell you that his newest album, while spare, has a reasonable amount of polish, and showcases Beal's songwriting talent and vocal ability more than a lo-fi vibe.

So I'm gonna be honest: during my first couple of listens to this album, I was under the mistaken impression that Beal was pretty much a hobo, and I was surprised by the depth of his songs, as well as the honeyed, soulful tone of his voice (also, I read somewhere that he sings in a lower tone on this release, as opposed to the falsetto of his last). I also noted the spare but often lushly-humming backgrounds of simple acoustic guitar, keyboard, and drums.  Of course, it's the lyrics that really make this album pop, something that first track "Wavering Lines" demonstrates perfectly by grabbing the listener's attention with nothing but a long a cappella intro that transitions into some antsy strings ("I got the Tupperware bowl with the turkey neck stew/Another couple of brews and a cookie too/I got a bladder full of piss now I'm gonna let go/Cause I ain't no priss I go down with the flow"). Then "Too Dry to Cry" is another winner, capitalizing on an old-timey blend of stomps, claps, and twangy plucks to deliver a chain-gang-reminiscent message of angst ("I got nine hard inches like a pitchfork prong/So honey lift up your dress and help me sing this song"). And finally, there's title track "Nobody knows.", where Beal layers soul-style vocals over a blurred bass haze, tense strings, and a snap of a beat ("You can get yourself an answer/Without the slightest query/But movement ain't necessary/To grow wired and weary").

Long story short; my husband was right, and this is a very decent offering that showcases Beal's lyrical and vocal talent, as well as a reigned-in propensity for gritty crudeness that gives Beal yet another thing in common with Wesley Willis (did I mention that Willis also references Batman in a song entitled "I Wupped Batman's Ass"?). And while the album would have been more effective if Beal's vocals were just a tad clearer (as so much of the interest lies in the lyrics), he certainly knows how to turn a phrase. Of course, there's a certain amount of kitsch to the record as well, since Beal often gives the impression of an eloquent hobo, even now that he has a roof over his head and, presumably, somewhere to wad his rolls of cash besides his sock. Basically, believe him when he says he's a delusional pseudo-hipster with his eye on cult novelty status, because that's EXACTLY what this album sounds like he's going for (although his voice is certainly better than that description requires). So in the words of another cult novelty: "A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he's not afraid of anything." What? I got bored of looking for a quote that was relevant...

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