Running over an hour and featuring a dozen stylistically and thematically similar ruminations on the dissolution of his marriage and host of other personal struggles, Willis Earl Beal’s Noctunes is one of the year’s biggest downers. Gone is the raspy, blues and gospel vocal timbre that first brought Beal, a Chicago street musician, to the attention of a wider audience. In its place is a soulful, ruminative voice that is all smooth edges and reliant on the upper reaches of its range.

While still inherently melodic, much like Marvin Gaye’s later albums, Noctunes feels almost improvisatory due to the conversational nature of not only Beal’s lyrics but delivery as well. Often accompanied by little more than droning synth strings, sparse electronic drums or gently strummed acoustic guitar, only Beal’s vocals and lyrics hold these songs together. And given the sheer length of the album itself, it proves more an exercise in catharsis than enjoyable listen.

With Beal’s raw emotionality palpable throughout, Noctunes is a bleak late-night record that, while ostensibly designed as a series of lullabies to help aid in sleep, feels more like the work of someone through with crying himself to sleep each night. With his vocals rarely rising above the softly conversational and always floating atop the minimalist arrangements, sitting through the whole of Noctunes’ hour plus running time can prove itself an exhausting exercise in patience and tolerance for an artist at his most inwardly reflective.

Let it go if you want to survive,” Beal sings on “Survive,” to himself more than anyone in particular. It’s this somewhat insular approach that makes the majority of the album, while universally relatable from a thematic standpoint, just a bit too specific to resonate with a broader audience in terms of lyrical content. And while Noctunes offers its fair share of memorably melodic moments, there is, throughout, a sort of sameness that prevents much of the material from sticking. Rather it’s a far more ephemeral record that can be emotionally affecting in the moment but ultimately leaves little in the way of lasting impact.

But not everything here is molasses slow and monochromatic. “Start Over” is a heartbreaking, Teddy Pendergrass-esque plea for a second chance. With Beal going from a plaintive coo to a soulful cry, it’s one of the album’s most affecting moments. When he hits the penultimate track’s soaring falsetto outro lines, he takes the album to a whole new level, proving himself a masterful vocalist, able to transfer all his pain and sorrow into song in a manner far more universal than the insular nature of the subject matter should allow.

Were the majority of the album more stylistically akin to what he accomplishes there, it would be a master class in contemporary soul. But as it stands, Noctunes shows Beal to be a gifted soul singer and a chameleonic artist limited only by the bounds of his imagination. Where he goes from here seems to hinge on what happens next in his life. Let’s just hope that after the darkness that is Noctunes there is a new dawn awaiting his long, lonely night.

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