A year after Hot Charity released Willis Earl Beal's self-recorded song sketches as his debut, the enigmatic Chicago songwriter finally gets his chance to show what he can do in a proper studio. Nobody Knows is a more complete, fleshed-out version of Beal's vision, replacing his former no-fi folk with ominous, gritty blues and soul (not to mention a guest spot by Cat Power), but it's still a work-in-progress.
Beal continues to frustrate: his hyper-self-aware attempt to present himself as a grizzled, world-weary hobo (à la Tom Waits) at times verges on self-parody, especially considering he's still in his 20s. But that frustration is part of his appeal. Beal is so obviously talented, you're constantly rooting for him to transcend his first-year-philosophy-student existentialism and reach his potential. Fittingly, the best moments showcase his voice: breathtaking, virtuosic, powerful but also raw and untrained.
Beal is playing the long game, but sometimes an incomplete project is more satisfying than a fully formed artifact.
Top track: Everything Unwinds