One album stood out for all of us here at Vivascene as 2013 comes to a close: the monumental, powerful and highly listenable Nobody Knows from Willis Earl Beal.
There were many stellar albums released in 2013, which of course pleased the Vivascene writing team no end, and challenged us in a way we haven’t experienced since this site went live in 2010. What to pick for Album of the Year? Bowie impressed us with his return to authenticity. Elvis Costello and The Roots delivered one hell of a collaborative effort. Several indie artists such as Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Foxygene released albums we’ll be listening to for quite some time to come. But one album stood out for all of us: the monumental, powerful and highly listenable Nobody Knows from Willis Earl Beal.
First off – our criteria. We looked for superb musicianship, production excellence, and meaningful impact, this last factor being a highly subjective, speculative fool’s game we love to play. Frankly, often it takes years, or even decades to measure the true importance of any musical work. There isn’t a critic alive who hasn’t been tempted into irrational exuberance over a piece of work that seduces by its initial attractions, only to sober up weeks or months later into a more reasoned and reasonable estimation. Lest that sound like we’re hedging our bets, well, let’s come right out and say it: we don’t know any better than you do what’s going to last, but we’re in the business of sticking out our necks for the chopping block of history. With those qualifications laid forth, let’s consider the work of Beal, whom we consider both exhilarating and brilliant.
Willis Earl Beal is a young musician out of Chicago: he’s an avowed fan of Tom Waits but harkens back to Marvin Gaye, possessing as he does a mellifluous and talented voice. He first came to national attention with his bare-bones 2012 release of Acousmatic Sorcery. It proved one of the quirkiest albums of the year and enabled the production of this new, more polished effort. Still, his distinctive lyrical approach, his soulful melodies, and his emotional directness are still much in evidence. The album cover itself is disarmingly simplistic, contradicting the complex layer of lyric, emotion and musicality found within. It’s anything but tame: ‘Too Dry To Cry’ is too explicit and too vivid ever to make it onto radio, and much of the rest of the album material requires repeated listening before its full treasures are revealed. This is an immeasurable relief in a cultural era that prides itself on bombastic histrionics and immediate self-gratification across virtually every media format.
Beal is subtle, powerful and simultaneously self-assured without being offensive or calculated. And let’s state this unequivocally (what’s a Record of the Year anyway, if we’re not passionate about it): there is a singular and refreshing lack of kowtowing to the always questionable influences of hip hop, rap and electronica on this album. Nobody Knows is all about music: natural, unaffected and explosive. That doesn’t mean this is a retro record – the experimental aspects of such pieces as ‘Disintegrating’ and ‘What’s The Deal’ are programmatic necessities, and integral complements to the work, not a substitute for compositional acuity as in so much of contemporary music. And Beal is one hell of a lyric writer – unafraid to use strong language, but having the talent to be lewd without being vulgar, and crude without being misogynist. Then in the next breath he will comes across as sweet and as honeyed as Marvin, Sam, Otis or Isaac. The production rings with strength and integrity – quiet when it needs to be, soulful and direct by turns. There’s also a star turn by Cat Power in the gorgeous ‘Coming Through’.
Beal takes you to places JayZ and Kanye West think they’ve been. He takes you where Waits has traveled and Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke were going before their unfortunate and untimely ends. Listen to ‘Wavering Lines’ and ‘Everything Unwinds’ and “Ain’t Got No Love’ for proof of all that and more. In fact, one listen to ‘Wavering Lines’ should convince you the music world has been blessed with the arrival of a major talent. And the final third of this record is truly remarkable. ‘White Noise’, with its dreamy reverie building to political positivity, leads to the powerhouse performance of ‘Hole In The Roof’, followed by the moody number ‘Blue Escape’ with its scrapey violin effects and churchy vocal: well, nothing else this year approaches their immediacy. But it’s not over. The title track, second from last, is the true masterwork of the album, embodying as it does a gorgeous melody and some terrific background singing while the sparse accompaniment underlines the song’s inherent power.
In summation, Nobody Knows projects a vibe unlike any other record of 2013, which is why we’ve chosen it as the Vivascene Album of the Year.
Beal’s impact has yet to be measured but we think he has several more great albums in him. This one’s as good as What’s Going On, and may well prove to be as seminal.