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. In the past four years, he signed to XL Recordings and then left the label; he got married and then divorced. Nothing about him is stable, and nothing moves in the direction you’d expect.
Noctunes is Beal’s first album in a year, his first on the Tender Loving Empire label, and the first he’s released since splitting from his now ex-wife. He wrote it toward the end of his marriage, at a time when he was still paired off but could feel his partner becoming more of a stranger by the day. It reeks of a transcendent loneliness, the kind that seizes you at 3 a.m. when it’s too hot to sleep next to another body and time passes too slowly through the empty world. Beal has said that all he ever wanted was to write lullabies. Here, he’s made 12 of them.
Compared to last year’s A Place That Doesn’t Exist EP and Experiments in Time: The Golden Hour, Noctunes follows a steadier pulse. There are no spoken word breakaways or rough, glitchy holes in the album’s veneer. For an hour, Beal indulges the softest, most serene edge of his songwriting. His voice unspools silkily, occasionally looping into falsetto, often multitracked over itself. The instrumentation behind him is restricted to a few drum loops, warm bass, and a cloudy palette of synth pads. His penchant for abrasion has been subdued into relentless soothing.
Though they’re separated by three decades, Noctunes finds a kinship with L’Amour, the lost Lewis album unearthed last year by Light in the Attic Records. Both collections have an immediate air of lostness to them; both sustain their melancholy for what feels like ages. But while Lewis sang with a faraway wistfulness, Beal kindles a fierce spark of hope at Noctunes’ core. The album’s centerpiece, “Stay”, is a six-minute plea for his marriage to last despite his own shortcomings. On “Survive”, meanwhile, he fights for his own right to exist in the face of the world’s chronic violence and overwhelming neglect. “Just turn your eyes to the sky and remove all doubt/ If you want to survive,” he sings. “’Cause they’ll eat you alive.”
More than sadness, Noctunes’ prevailing mode is that of comfort. Beal sings like he’s trying to soothe himself with the sound of his own voice and wrap it around something bigger than himself at the same time. He sings about wanting to restart his marriage on “Start Over”, though the song carries the weight of a funeral dirge even in the words “I’m still holding on.” It’s as if he’s stared so long into the darkness that his retinas have flashed up with invisible light. What doesn’t exist is as real in this world as what does. When Beal sings through the chorus of “Flying So Low”, his voice lights up at the top of his range. Everything implies its opposite, so everything is its opposite.
Beal is a wanderer, but in the way that everybody is a wanderer. The name Nobody could double as shorthand for every person who brushes against his surreal and nakedly beautiful music — if everything is its opposite, everybody’s Nobody, too. Noctunes passes by in a slow murk, but on its closer, “12 Midnight”, Beal issues a new order over an irregular drum beat: “Let’s just run.” It sounds like he’s reaching through space from wherever he is and commanding you, specifically, to follow him. It also sounds like a stray impulse bubbling up from your own private brainstem, setting your legs spontaneously in motion. Beal doesn’t need to map the logic of his songs. He’s nobody; he’s everybody; he’s you.
Essential Tracks: “Flying So Low”, “Stay”, and “Start Over”