Willis Earl Beal – ‘Noctunes’

Chicago outsider returns with a raw and sorrowful fifth album

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. After years of turmoil, during which time he was arrested for acts of violence, he seemed to be dropping out – leaving behind the world of record labels, happy to be married, determined to be “nobody” again, as he calls himself. He self-recorded and self-released an album last year, ‘Experiments In Time’, before hooking up with tiny Portland indie Tender Loving Empire for ‘Noctunes’ – a pun on nocturne, a classical term meaning music that’s evocative of the night. It’s an appropriate title, telling of Beal’s strung-out, wee-small-hours sound; long songs, all downbeat, sparse drumbeats, washes of synth and his distinctive half-folk, half-soul croon.

Ahead of its release, Beal put out a single, ‘Flying So Low’ – a desperately sad song that he sings as if he’s saying, “I’m flying solo”. To hear the rest of ‘Noctunes’ is to realise that the song – although lyrically unspecific – is about the collapse of his marriage. On ‘Solution’, Beal sings, “I want to say something about it to you/I know I lost my wedding ring”, and there are other difficult moments, like ‘Lust’ (self-explanatory) and ‘Able To Wait’, which is perhaps the album’s bleakest track, because it tries to be hopeful.

Beal has described this record as a concept album – a prophesy of his fate. He claims that, at present, he can place himself towards the end of the story, with worse to come. Even the second last track, ‘Start Over’, is not about moving on. “I want to start over with you, baby”, he sings. “I’m still holding on“. He finishes with ‘Midnight’: “Now it’s time to hear the wind’s faint call”.

In its own way, ‘Noctunes’’ forensic examination of the death of a relationship resembles Björk’s recent album ‘Vulnicura’. It’s as raw and sorrowful, but with different sonic reference points. Last year, Seattle-based reissue label Light In The Attic put out a mysterious, ‘lost’ album called ‘L’Amour’ by a singer called Lewis. As unsettling as it was melancholy, it caught people’s imagination and led to Lewis being located in Canada some 30-odd years after he recorded the album. ‘Noctunes’ feels like ‘L’Amour’: it’s outsider music, lullaby-like, drifting in and out of reality, wounded and almost unbearable.

There are plenty of people who gave Beal’s 2012 debut ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’ a shot, then dismissed him as his acts of brutality were reported in the press. The violence hasn’t stopped. In July, Beal was arrested in Portland on charges of criminal mischief and harassment, and he apparently spent two weeks in jail. He seeks no forgiveness for any of his past actions on ‘Noctunes’, nor does he present himself as anyone but an erroneous, lost man. You hope that Beal’s new label will be able to offer him some of the support he so desperately craves, and also that they keep releasing his music. He’s an impossible person, by all accounts – especially his own – but also an exceptionally expressive songwriter.