Experiments in Time

Willis Earl Beal

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Experiments in Time Review

by Fred Thomas

Early output from wandering tunesmith Willis Earl Beal was hard to pin down, primarily because of how well his songwriting style attached itself to whichever genre he approached. Over the course of two records and an EP for XL sub-imprint Hot Charity, Beal moved through lo-fi indie mopiness, harrowing gospel, Tom Waits-like barfly crooning, collaborations with Cat Power, and many other breeds of sound, every shifting song tied together by his powerful voice and confident musical delivery. With all of Beal's ceaseless gear-shifting, it comes as no surprise that third album Experiments in Time offers a deep departure from much of what he's done before. The album deals mostly with subdued, protracted tunes, Beal's voice gliding soulfully over muted beds of synthesizers. Though not quite balladry, songs like the soft-edged opener "Questions," the hazy "Monotony," and the understated budget trip-hop feel of "Slow Bus" all rely on dreamlike ambient pop backdrops, with Beal's voice as the only element that doesn't sink into the album's general cloudy atmosphere. "Who Knows?" finds double-tracked vocals nearly rapping, but the absence of a beat or bassline keeps the song from graduating into more than woozy wordplay over a slumping loop. Perhaps always operating one step ahead of even himself, Beal's albums feel alien and disconnected from any particular era or culture existing outside of his own frenzied imagination. Experiments in Time is much the same, turning in the musical equivalent of a slow-paced daydream that flows in and out of focus much more than it offers standout tracks or even spikes in emotion over its nearly hourlong running time. Instead, Beal quietly weaves an environment for listeners to drop in on, ignore, or linger in as they choose.

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