Experiments In Time opens with a monologue. A man speaks over background noise that sounds like traffic streaming down a faraway highway: “I don’t really like doing things. This just occurred to me. What I mean is, most activities I enjoy involve some manner of stagnation.” Though the story of his past nomadism and homelessness still sometimes precedes him, on Experiments In Time, Willis Earl Beal has finally settled into a groove of patient persistence and is happy to let the musical inertia take over.
Since releasing 2013’s Nobody Knows, Beal has broken away from his Hot Charity imprint and its parent label XL, citing creative differences and personality disputes, and released this album on his own. In an interview with Under The Radar, Beal said, “[The label] doesn’t want to spend a whole lot of time thinking about all the lonely psychopaths that listen to music in the middle of the night while riding their bikes. And those are the kind of people I want to make music for.”
Questions is the name of the album’s opening track, setting the mood of easily broken uncertainty that pervades the LP. The instrumentation is minimal, a scattered organ flourish, with Beal repeating the phrase “no name to call” in his crooked baritone, once again sounding like the faceless drifter that first made people pay attention. Same Auld Tears, like many songs on the album, is almost dirge-like, with nothing but smoky keys flickering in the background. In a quivering gospel-esque tone, Beal sings, “I won’t feel right/until everybody knows/something I don’t know.” There’s a self-flagellating loneliness to Experiments In Time; an unwillingness to accept the superfluous luxuries and false friendships that seem to pervade the surrounding world.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the soft acoustic pluck of Traveling Eyes, where Beal sounds like a melancholic troubadour stuck in the rain, unmoved by the hardness of concrete, but nostalgic for human comfort. It’s no surprise he often cites Tom Waits as an influence. In Your Hands has Beal testing the upper limits of his vocal range, his blue croon fading like he’s singing into a vast, boundary-less space. He’s at his strongest here, and that’s because Beal’s talent has always manifested itself in his voice. Throughout Experiments In Time, Beal kneads his vocals into various intangible apparitions, like monotone academia (Waste It Away), delicate, lonely lullabies (Heads Or Tails) and eerily slow zealous apathy (Monotony).
Beal’s separation from Hot Charity is only apparent in that there are no obvious singles on this album. Unlike Nobody Knows and this year’s Curious Cool EP, Experiments In Time is a patient work, never rushing or faltering from its dedication to the weight of processed isolation. There’s no attempt to make any songs appropriate for looped listens or party playlists, and yet it’s precisely because of this that Experiments In Time sounds like it could’ve only come from Willis Earl Beal, and Willis Earl Beal alone.