“Monotony/ It’s so holy,” sings Willis Earl Beal on Experiments in Time, his striking baritone voice quivering beneath a thin layer of synths and jazz guitar. Upon an initial listen, this song breaks no new sonic, dynamic, or emotional ground for the avant-folk singer-songwriter. His recordings remain as lo-fi and grainy as ever, his vocals still wilted and weary. Still, Experiments in Time is Beal’s best and most focused album to date.
Coming after two EPs earlier this year — the decent A Place That Doesn’t Exist and the superfluous, sub-par Curious Cool — it’d be hard not to wonder whether Beal actually possessed the necessary patience to make an album cohere from start to finish. Yet, the greatest asset of Experiments in Time may in fact be its dedication to a theme, often centering on his obsession with finding serenity in the everyday mundane.
Sometimes it’s the healing powers of nature. “When I detect the moonlight way/ Parting fog down by the bay/ I feel okay,” he sings on “Traveling Eyes”, his voice echoing above a softly plucked acoustic guitar. And on standout track “At the Airport”, Beal finds peace in the stuffy sterility of an airport terminal. “There are funnel clouds, transparent tubes/ Wind-swept blue in the cocktail lounge/ Tunnel crowds, reflective cubes,” he cries, like a wide-eyed child about to take his first vacation.
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Overall, the tracks on Experiments in Time feel less like proper songs with melodies and patterns and more like vague musical landscapes. They’re analogous to the way the topography underneath your feet might subtly change on a long, directionless walk. Blink once and you’re on a grassy hill; blink again and you’re in the sand facing the ocean. But Beal’s decision to under-write the tracks on Experiments in Time is tactical. Beyond a few atonal keyboards tickled at nomadic will, nothing musical is really happening at any point, allowing the listener to give his or her undivided attention to the lyrics. Beal has always kept things sparse, so his words stand out, but here there are no flourishes whatsoever. Only two songs out of 12 (the hazy “Slow Bus” and the muted trip-hop of “Waste It Away”) feature any percussion or beat.
With this in mind, Experiments in Time becomes an interesting and unlikely cousin to Sun Kil Moon’s wonderful record Benji from earlier this year. Though Mark Kozelek’s album is more melodically fleshed out than Beal’s, both possess the same understated approach to instrumentation. A song like Benji‘s “Jim Wise”, for instance, wouldn’t be nearly as devastating if it had been performed by a full band. Instead, backed only by a few simple keyboard phrases, Kozelek’s lyrics have the capacity to sock you repeatedly right in the heart. Beal’s formula is quite similar to this, if not taken one step further. On “Heads or Tails”, he ruminates on the arbitrariness of love and romance buoyed by a soft synth part. “Sometimes reason fades/ And it’s only heads or tails,” he moans. It’s a sad lyric that only gets sadder given the pulverizing void underneath his voice.
Despite its title, which could suggest some sort of nostalgic exercise, Experiments in Time succeeds because it’s not concerned with channeling any particular time whatsoever. In fact, it’s not concerned with channeling anything at all. It’s a mood, an essence, a flimsy world with no history beyond a few “transparent tubes.” In other words, it’s Beal’s beautiful emptiness. And we’re living in it.
Essential Tracks: “At The Airport”, “Monotony”, and “Heads or Tails”