Willis Earl Beal is cool. Of that there is no denying. He has a back story, which goes a long way in the music business these days, particularly when it comes to grabbing attention. Would Bon Iver have got so much attention without his “heartbroken cabin in the woods” narrative? Not to detract from the brilliance from that record, just something to consider. Willis was homeless for a time, used to leave blank CDs of his music across his neighbourhood and put up self-illustrated flyers offering to sing a song to anyone who called.
Willis Earl Beal looks cool, too. In photographs and on stage he looks every inch of his 6 foot plus frame, dressed down in jeans and t-shirts, with black ray-bans a near permanent fixture on his face. On Jools Holland in 2012 Willis Earl Beal lay his guitar on his lap and played it with what is either a knitting needle or a nail, I can’t tell, lounging back in his chair singing into the mic by the side of his head, as if the song bursting forth from his chest was something of an inconvenience to his being.
Willis Earl Beal makes cool music. His latest record “Nobody Knows” is a kind of blues-through-the-ages odyssey that begins with the soulful acapella “Wavering Lines” and over the course of the album gets more spacey, more experimental and more interesting. Sonically it sprawls across the speakers, each song sounding as if it’s been smashed to pieces and put back together again in a different way, with sharp edges jutting out and soft holes letting light pour in.
If the first two paragraphs of this review make it sound like I’m sceptical of Willis Earl Beal, it’s because I absolutely was when I first found out about him. He is a genius in the art of self-promotion, and often times when someone is a genius in the art of self-promotion, that genius wears off pretty quick. Put simply, when the first thing you hear about someone is that he used to be homeless or is dead, dead stylish, then it usually means their music ain’t that good. Not so with Willis, not so at all.
Because though Beal is cool, he’s also the real-deal. His voice is a thing of beauty, warm and soulful at times, fraught and fragile at others – he can change the tone of a song at the drop of a hat. There’s blues there, for sure, not least in the aforementioned “Wavering Lines” but also in the mournful “Too Dry To Cry,” with its twanging guitar backdrop. But it’s not so much blues a la Seasick Steve, more a kind of Tom Waits, Nick Cave-esque blues that retains a kind of theatricality, a kind of cinematic presence. “What’s The Deal” sounds like it came off the soundtrack to a David Lynch film.
It is the diverse nature of this record that is both its strength and its weakness. With each song pulling you in a new direction the listener struggles to find a consistent thread across the record, though each song individually is cleverly put together and sonically arresting. Beal’s cool will last him for a while, and ensure he gets the attention he deserves, but his music is what will endure. On this showing, you get the feeling he’s just warming up.