Willis Earl Beal wants to lead. When he first emerged, his press narrative told of how he’d stand outside in Albuquerque, handing out his illustrations. Now he’s signed to Hot Charity/XL Recordings (for the moment, anyway) and touring with a full band called The Church Of Nobody. Whether it’s implied or explicitly stated, his hunger for enlightenment is matched only by his wish to bring other people with him. Or is it “to” him? One’s Jesus and the other’s David Koresh. The balancing act of this difference is central to the artist’s appeal. It spills into his video for the Cat Power-featuring “Coming Through,” and muddies reality like so much VHS.
Though it opens as another entry in the found footage genre, the video plays like a daydream during the “Monotony” video – through his pornographic pamphlets, Willis (decked out in that video’s costume) recruits the devoted family he’s always craved, a mini Jonestown of grateful subjects. Truth and fiction weakly bend into each other. Mischa Barton, who fell off the general public’s radar after her teen soap hit The O.C., reappears as Beal’s favoured “Nobody,” the object of his lust in the form of pencil drawn portraits and wandering hands. Within ten minutes, the romance of the outsider artist has been flipped into a sociopathic horrorshow. And it’s not that hard, either: didn’t Charles Manson’s thwarted pop ambitions metastasise into murder and mayhem?
Beal has a rapper’s flair for artistic messiah status in a folk poet’s body. Sometimes it can be trying, but “Coming Through” displays a full awareness, and even respect for, the savagery that such status and social capital can grow in the hearts of men. With a bemused and curious eye, Beal explores where his passions could have led him. And he’s not apologizing for any of it.