- 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. The booming voice of the blues, rock, and gospel shouter of earlier records has been replaced by a vulnerable, tender soul singer. He's framed these 12 songs in skeletal arrangements -- a keyboard and/or acoustic guitar and sparse (when used at all) percussion. Beal has said that these 12 tunes were written as lullabies to combat his insomnia, that they are a concept album. Musically, it is nearly serene, almost monochromatic. His voice is almost always silky and soft, and there isn't a hint of his growling snarl. But the songs tell a different story. Written near the end of his marriage and in the aftermath of divorce, they are confessional, lost, loaded. Noctunes is, even at its most hopeful, almost unbearably sad. Over the first half Beal details his mental and emotional devastation. In "Under You," he desperately croons "What's in your heart/Is deeply down where the starfish lay/Upon the ocean's ground/Even after the light from up above/Has faded away...." On "Flying So Low" his bottoming out seems endless. The tenderness in his singing is the voice of pain itself. In "No Solution" (with a falsetto worthy of Marvin Gaye) and "Lust" (where fellow Chicagoan Terry Callier's influence comes to the fore), he directly addresses the absent one; he confesses his shortcomings, but doesn't apologize. The album's hinges, "Stay" and "Say the Words," are searing soul songs lyrically and vocally. In both tunes his protagonist reaffirms his love and pleads for another chance. Beal struggles for acceptance in "Love Is All Around," but admits "Lost my mind/Over this one...." On "Survive," backed by a drum loop and moody synth, he admonishes himself to make it through the suffering incurred by this situation and the world's sometimes violent indifference, by letting it all go. One can hear ghost traces of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" in its cadence and spooky feel. Closers "Start Over" and "Midnight" continue to hope -- even in vain -- for a new beginning, leaving the listener to wonder how he'll continue to cope. Noctunes is stridently focused on grief, denial, and endurance. Beal deliberately restrains his dynamic and genre palette with slow tempos, sparse soul settings, and subtler -- yet no less expressive -- singing. For fans who enjoyed the breadth of his earlier records, this might seem -- at least initially -- a disappointment. But Beal knew exactly what he was doing: by reining in musical diversity and production, he gave the melancholic poetry in these songs their due. The result is not only satisfying, but adds to the already unclassifiable depth of his artistry. ~ Thom Jurek
Spin - "Especially given the boisterous resilience he exhibited in the past, it's a surprise to see him retreat, but it makes these hushed recordings all the more tender - a depression that provokes compassion, not pity."
NME (Magazine) - "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."