Willis Earl Beal – ‘Nobody Knows’

The Chicago-born musician’s passion and perversity make him the most fascinating outsider in the game

No longer is Willis Earl Beal wearing the moth-eaten suit of a crotchety bluesman and whispering about “smoking that chronic” like a time-travelling Dr Dre on the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s, as he was on last year’s unsettling debut ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’.

That was hobo-skronk recorded on a budget karaoke machine. Instead, on this the follow-up, he’s morphed into a demonic lounge lizard, laying down one of the most commanding vocal performances of the year, while occasionally making pop concessions so deft you wonder why he didn’t stick it out with the X Factor auditions.

As album openers go, an a cappella musing on Tupperware, turkey-neck stew and a bottle of piss doesn’t sound like a crowd pleaser. It takes almost two and a half minutes for the instrumentation on ‘Wavering Lines’ to set in, and when it does it’s in the form of a tinnitus violin squeal and impertinent strokes of a bassy cello. It’s never less than compelling, showcasing Willis’ killer voice – an old-school, candlelit, date-night-with-a-dirty-movie serenader. Straight after comes ‘Coming Through’, a duet with Cat Power. A stately Marvin Gaye Motown shimmy, it’d make a great single. And in a perfect world it’s the song that’ll draw in the people who’ll buy ‘Nobody Knows’ expecting to hear more of the same kind of perky R&B.

Who knows how they’ll react to the record’s caustic centerpiece, ‘Too Dry To Cry’. It begins with alleyway thuds and rudimentary drum slaps, and despite its warped gospel murmuring this is definitely not fit for church. After inviting his prey back to his one-room shack, Willis drops one of the frankest come-ons since Nick Cave’s version of ‘Stagger Lee’. “I got nine hard inches like a pitchfork prong/So honey lift up your dress and help me sing this song”, he sings as the backing track drops out entirely, just in case his intentions weren’t quite clear enough.

Self-produced with a little help from XL’s Rodaidh McDonald, who’s also had a hand in releases from King Krule and The xx, the label’s signature wafty-dub sound is present in ‘White Noise’. Over an acoustic guitar and a delicate wall of distant sonic fuzz, like rain softly pattering against a windowpane, it’s the polar opposite of the ballsy ‘Ain’t Got No Love’. Imagine Whitney Houston’s ‘Queen Of The Night’ rejigged by a twisted Tom Waits preacher staggering around the sordid streets of New Orleans and you’re almost there. As a whole it’s a bold, beautiful and uncompromising record. And proof that right now Willis’ passion and perversity make him the most fascinating outsider in the game.

Leonie Cooper