Willis Earl Beal has a story to tell. It’s both personal and universal. It’s his own story of self-discovery and evolution and yet it is about us all. It’s about isolation and connection; about loss and love; about reality and imagination; about nothing and everything; about life itself. The Chicago-born singer-songwriter/self-taught musician has traveled a rocky road throughout his life, but despite, or maybe because of, his life-altering and life-shaping experiences, Willis has continued to follow his vision to create not only music, but hand-drawn illustrations, and to develop his philosophies on the individual – about the hidden inner life and wearing an outer mask, socio-economic issues and media manipulation, ambition versus ability, and at the core, time, existence, emotion, and meaning.
Musically, Willis has several releases to his name, including his debut album, 2012’s Acousmatic Sorcery, and sophomore record, Nobody Knows., from 2013 on XL Recordings imprint Hot Charity. He self-released his 3rd album, Experiments in Time, last year and is now set to drop his 4th album, Noctunes, August 28th on Tender Loving Empire.
Willis creates his music as a way to discover more about himself and also as a means to connect with other people. After the release of Nobody Knows., Willis found himself on a rollercoaster ride of intense media attention and an itinerant touring lifestyle that did not fit in with his home life. He retreated to Olympia, Washington to regroup and crafted two EPs as well as Experiments in Time. He continued his productive stint with the actualization of the 12 songs that make up Noctunes. He purposefully stripped down the tracks to their essence with minimal sonics and lyrics. Ambient soundscapes were shaped mainly with suspended synth strings and drops of electronic notes. Whether Willis’ viewpoint and ideas that he relates in interviews could translate through his music is a relevant question and one that is answered in the main with a resounding yes. Willis doesn’t have to say much to convey the full meaning and weight of his words.
The meditative first single off Noctunes, “Flying So Low”, introduces the listener to the beset mindset of Willis Earl Beal. Against a quietly ambient palette of mid- to lower-range, sustained synth lines, Willis slowly draws out a soulful lament that he’s “flying so low”. Two vocal layers contrast each other as his deeper, rich tones, with the occasional touch of an emotional tremor, traverse the shadows, while his other vocal line lightly swoops up into a pleading, higher register. Piano and other plinked notes unobtrusively dot the backdrop while Willis broods that “I know it’s almost time so / I fall and crumble / I don’t have no place to go.” (Ummm, isn’t that a double negative?) The song drifts away right when he starts firing up vocally with exclamations of “I just want to come back!”…
Second single “Survive” starkly reflects upon the negative impact of society (whether in the music industry or other arena) and/or a toxic friendship on the individual, where “In your heart you feel your right / but they tell you you’re wrong.” and that “…they’ll eat you alive.” A kinetic, but contained drum beat and the gleam of sparkling, high-pitched synth notes add a pretty liveliness to the tune which shines against the gloom of low-tone, extended synth lines and Willis’ clear and direct vocals. He lays his emotions bare as the song goes on, ending with the hard-won adage that “If you want to survive / you got to let it go.”
Dusky and lulling album-lead “Under You” both twinkles with light synth notes and radiates with a slowly drawn out, uneasy synth line. Willis’ vocals reverberate through the nocturnal ambience as he’s backed by his second, more wistful vocal line. He croons softly amid the dirge, admitting regretfully that he’s “…seen behind the scenes / …but I can’t see what’s in your heart.” Powerful lyrical unrest is met with equally restless sonics on “Like A Box”. The song pushes forward with a continually thumping beat, rapid cymbals tick, and faster synth lines and piano notes. Willis tackles the theme of individuality head-on with his words and urgent vocal tone, sing-talking that in today’s society most people are “Like a box / So clean and minimalistic” and all of one kind, projecting fake personas and living in a supposedly free world where we walk to “…where there’s nothing to do.”
The ephemeral, drawn-out synth lines that hover over every song become much too familiar by the midway point of the album, but Wills partially overcomes this by the sheer poignancy of his voice and profundity of his words. His high-crying sighs mark the riven-relationship-driven “No Solution” as he mournfully keens “I hold you close in my mind / The way to your heart I’ll never find.” amid squiggly synth and piano notes and those ubiquitous floating synth lines. The spare ballad “Stay” continues the concept of “No Solution”, but this time with Willis pleading his case in a smoother, yearning croon that “You’re the one I need.” and “I want you to stay with me.”
Willis lets fly on the vocally soaring, emotionally vivid “Start Over” and it shakes the listener awake after the soothing sonics and subdued vocals of previous songs. The naturally magnetic Willis attacks his words with a fervor that’s lacking on other tracks, wearing his heart on his sleeve as he emotes through the lines “I want to start over with you… / I’m still holdin’ on to you…” It’s a standout moment on the album at least from the angle of Willis’ resonant vocal fireworks display.
Willis’ voice rises at times to a falsetto on the relationship-bound “Love Is All Around” before lowering into a deeper tone as he describes the shutdown of a potential love interest who states simply “Go the fuck away.” Those blunt words are offset by his declarations of “I had all that I needed in my soul.” And the inclusive “Love is all around / It don’t wear a disguise.” Cymbal hit and a ticking beat mark the time while that ever-present, ear-piercing synth line needles in the background.
Willis accepts his inescapable fate on “Able To Wait”, sing-talking in a hushed, mid-range tone “Don’t need to rush the time / ‘cause I’ll be just fine.” and affirming that “…I don’t need to know any more than I do now.” His voice is in the forefront of the mix to the point that the instrumentation of cymbal tick and light synths don’t leave much of an impression. What does have a lasting effect on Noctunes is Willis Earl Beal’s insightful and incisive lyrics that reveal universal truths and his changeable vocals that gracefully segue from a caressing croon to longing emotion to down-to-earth wisdom.
Review by Jen Dan