Modern-day troubadour and genre-flipping songsmith Willis Earl Beal had one of the more compelling debut albums of 2012 with Acousmatic Sorcery, a collection of tunes whose emotional gravity outweighed their lo-fi presentation. With sophomore follow-up Nobody Knows, Beal returns with a much slicker recording style, but with the same shifting restlessness that marked his debut, moving from throaty gospel pop to dirty blues rock to noisy experiments as the album progresses. Never quite as unhinged as the home recordings that made up his debut, the songs on Nobody Knows all benefit from the clarity of a well-oiled studio, but Beal's self-production (credited as "Nobody" in part of a hard-to-read narrative that flows through the album and its liner notes) keeps things somewhat loose even in the most defined moments. Some of those well-defined moments include the clear standout of "Coming Through," a rootsy, rocking soul tune featuring Cat Power's Chan Marshall trading call and response backing vocals with Beal, who takes on the role of a shouty preacher over the song's laid-back groove. Glistening orchestration on more sorrowful tracks like "Burning Bridges" or the cascading, piano-based ballad "Blue Escape" are a far cry from the karaoke-machine basement recordings of earlier work, but those beginnings are never too far from the surface. The haunted, shortwave radio-noise blues of "Disintegrating," or the demented, horny lyrics of "Too Dry to Cry" point to the more anarchic elements of Beal's ever-morphing personality. Taking cues from everyone from Tom Waits to Screamin' Jay Hawkins to Daniel Johnston, Beal continues the eclectic and wild streak he began on his debut, but takes it into more refined, if not completely more accessible zones with Nobody Knows. It's hard to tell if the album feels angrier and grittier than its predecessor, or if peeling off the layers of lo-fidelity actually reveal an artist more raw and without rules than we first perceived.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas