Published Aug 26, 2015In one of his first high profile interviews, brazenly eclectic Windy City troubadour Willis Earl Beal declared, "I want to be like the black Tom Waits." And yet he sounds like anything but on Noctunes, his fourth studio album. There's no gravely rasp to his vocals or vaudeville experimentation on this LP. Instead, Beal opts for the kind of soothing, haunting synths and rattling drum machines that wouldn't be out of place on a mid '80s Phil Collins hit.
But what truly sets this new LP apart from Beal's more abrasive leanings in his accomplished, positively hummable vocals. On lead single "Flying So Low," he holds plaintive, seemingly eternal high notes in a fashion reminiscent of Otis Redding. Midway track "Say The Words," meanwhile, finds him whisper-sighing his lyrics with all the seductive charm of heyday Lionel Richie, while also avoiding the indulgent melodrama that often barred that elder pop star from critical acclaim. More impressive still is the deeper pitched, braying evangelical drawl Beal brings to centrepiece track "No Solution."
The tempo of the album's instrumentation is far less varied, remaining at a subdued slow burn throughout most of these 12 tracks. Early cut "Like a Box" is the exception — escalating with heart-racing synths and galvanizing cymbal rattles as Beal delivers his lyrics in declarative, quasi-raps. Those lines are tough to interpret — "Transport through a tube, to a cube, it's a box," and the refrain, "Like a box so clean and minimalistic," are opaque at best. But the electro-pop instrumentation, coupled with Beal's eerie vocals, give those lyrics a vintage sci-fi tinge.
Such attributes are consistent throughout the album, making it a mysterious, sprawling listen that will baffle the masses, but reward patient listeners longing for an LP that is immersive, quirky and gently haunting. (Tender Loving Empire)