Release Date: Aug 28, 2015
Record label: Tender Loving Empire
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Singer-songwriter Willis Earl Beal had already moved to rural Washington state by the time his relationship with XL records – or more specifically, a US-based XL subsidiary called Hot Charity – collapsed in 2013-14. He’s spoken at length about what he thinks went wrong, they haven’t, and perhaps all we can conclude is what Beal told The Guardian last year: “It’s hard dealing with an artist – particularly me. ”Beal, who was once in the US army and, by his own admission, has struggled to ever find a concrete position is life, moved to Washington with his new wife, Jessica, who he’d met before signing his deal.
In 2013, around the time he released his second full-length, Nobody Knows, Willis Earl Beal told The Guardian that the air of engima that he’d surrounded himself in over those past couple of years had been “a defence mechanism”; partly because the intense scrutiny he faced after coming to the attention of the blogosphere was difficult to bear, and partly because his (fascinating) back story was something he hated. After a relatively stable childhood, he drifted, joining the army at twenty-two and, after being discharged, was homeless by twenty-three. His sumptuous voice wasn’t done justice by his first album, Acousmatic Sorcery, but it brought him considerable press attention and, ultimately, a deal with XL Recordings; on Nobody Knows, he delivered on his early promise in style, with his live shows channeling the record’s fraught drama and often-unbridled passion.
By now, you probably know of Willis Earl Beal as a wanderer. He’s lived life after life, never staying in one place for long. He makes album after album filled with his strangely pristine voice and a spread of stray synthesizers, and with names like Principles of a Protagonist and Nobody Knows. He calls himself Nobody and his Tumblr The Book of Nobody, and he sporadically posts poems that double as status updates on his music career.
Willis Earl Beal’s latest studio album Noctunes is ostensibly titled so because of its thematic connection to the night. While many albums and songs about nighttime celebrate its fast-paced, anything-can-happen nature, Beal’s take on these hours is one of wistful contemplation, moving at a glacial pace. For an artist whose most interesting moments came during the revelation of his novelesque backstory, Noctunes offers little in the way of a sea-change that should please old fans and endear new to his unforgettable voice, at the very least.
Willis Earl Beal has been through the wringer since 2013's Nobody Knows. He's been married, he relocated from New York to rural Washington, divorced, moved to Portland, became homeless, and had some unruly encounters with police. Even so, he managed to record and self-release 2014's Experiments in Time, which delivered a glimpse of the music found on Noctunes, his debut for Tender Loving Empire.
Since the release of 2013’s Nobody Knows., his last LP for XL subsidiary Hot Charity, Willis Earl Beal’s been through some s–t. The vagabond songwriter publicly and dramatically left the label, then ditched his New York City home, moved to Washington state, watched his marriage dissolve, moved to Portland, and became briefly homeless. You’d be forgiven if, as a result, you expect more tumult and torture on Noctunes, his latest in a hazy run of home-recordings.
In one of his first high profile interviews, brazenly eclectic Windy City troubadour Willis Earl Beal declared, "I want to be like the black Tom Waits." And yet he sounds like anything but on Noctunes, his fourth studio album. There's no gravely rasp to his vocals or vaudeville experimentation on this LP. Instead, Beal opts for the kind of soothing, haunting synths and rattling drum machines that wouldn't be out of place on a mid '80s Phil Collins hit.But what truly sets this new LP apart from Beal's more abrasive leanings in his accomplished, positively hummable vocals.
Written by an isolated lake at night during the breakdown of his marriage, Noctunes finds Beal downbeat, softer and more vulnerable than on his 2013 release, Nobody Knows. The long, drawn-out synth strings of album opener Under You bleed into all tracks across the album, which drift past as a soporific collection of ambient ballads evoking insomnia and loneliness (Like a Box being a notable, trancey exception). While the minimalist voice-synth-drums setup intermittently hints at new age meditative music or 80s ballads, Beal’s outsider lyrics and occasional sorrowful howl stop the album from slipping into well-trodden territory.
Both Willis Earl Beal and his morphing, hypnotic brand of lo-fi blues are truly indefinable. The accompanying write up for his latest LP ‘Noctunes’ makes this crystal clear; it outlines his many “births” and “deaths” that he’s had in his career through snippets of his life and beguiling quotes. These “deaths” include being discharged from the army - and perhaps most revealing - ending his contract with XL following recording the expansive ‘Nobody Knows’ album, which was plagued with him drinking “in the daytime, crying, then I’d go downtown.
My former landlord has many questionable treasures in his house – marbled books, old movie photos, Pylon gig posters. So for many months, I never minded the battered tin plate propped against the couch – it looked like a kid had painted the front, as there was a red horned stick figure, a boxy cow, and a yellow sun all in a row against a white and green background. Over a year after I moved in, he told me that a New York art snob would’ve paid hundreds for it.
In the 2013 film, Memphis, Willis Earl Beal stars as a singer who drifts through the woods and walks the streets alone. He visits a church and a strip club, soaking in the city by himself. Beal’s recent work feels born out of that movie, its meandering pace and self-assessing narrative a direct complement to the flick’s equally meditative theme.
In the last two years since he was plucked from homelessness and obscurity, signed to (and quickly released from) a big record label deal, man of mystery Willis Earl Beal has been relishing his reclaimed life as a "nobody. " After his 2012 debut and two subsequent albums, the Chicago native's career has followed a "rags to riches to rags" narrative that is less inspiring to people than the typical indie success story, but for the introverted folk/soul minimalist, he's right in the creative sweet spot. Beal has become the mythical outsider artist he desired to be, and not the token "soul man" he felt he was being portrayed as.
Willis Earl Beal's life has had a lot of shakeups since his 2012 debut. While his lo-fi experimental blues act garnered him a lot of attention, it quickly became apparent that his newfound success brought complications. Problems with alcohol, onstage violence and a general dissatisfaction with the music industry led him to part ways with former label Hot Charity, and more recently he went through a divorce, bouts of homelessness and another arrest.
Henry Yates on new releases from Walter Trout, Danielle Nicole, Willis Earl Beal, Brother Dege and Joe Louis Walker Walter Trout: Battle Scars ADVERTISINGinRead invented by Teads For any glass-half-empty bluesman, happiness is bad for business. When Walter Trout survived last year’s 11th-hour liver transplant, his earliest attempts at comeback material were hobbled by lyrics he described as “smell-the-roses bullshit”. Thankfully, the veteran bandleader changed tack, revisiting the hellish wait for a donor in hospital, and spitting out this emotionally bare concept album.
Willis Earl Beal isn't exactly deprived of a backstory. A semi-mythologising malcontent, a wanderlust-ridden experimental soul outsider plagued by life-long anxiety, insomnia and occasional poor judgement, he has something of the martyr of self-fulfilled prophecy about him. Following another spell of homelessness, a sour departure from XL/Hot Charity, struggles with alcohol and his arrest following a sudden assault of a heckler at a show in Amsterdam, Beal has trod a decidedly troubled trail on the road to apparent self-deliverance.