When Willis Earl Beal was recently interviewed by both Paper and Spin, he was living as a vagabond. His new label, Tender Loving Empire, had been helping to put him up through connections and motels in Portland. And when he didn’t have one of those places to sleep, he was prepared with a tent, to take shelter in a park, with his new girlfriend. The day he spoke with Paper, he’d just missed a shift at a bottle factory. This is a man who, two years ago, released an album featuring Cat Power through XL’s Hot Charity subsidiary, as part of a five-album deal. He had toured the world, played the Pitchfork Music Festival and Jools Holland, and thereafter starred as a character based on himself in the film Memphis.
But even when he was at his most visible, even when attempts were made to tailor him to trends, his image and his songs posited a quest for solace in self-negation. He’d formerly been the type of artist to defy trends; he’d sometimes been homeless, he was discovered after distributing illustrated fliers seeking a girlfriend and offering to sing to strangers who called a provided phone number — all of this became an inexorable part of his “brand” when he started to rise from obscurity.
Now, the pairing of Noctunes, his new album of insomniac lullabies that assesses a doomed relationship in the solitude of the middle of the night, with reports of Beal’s current lifestyle show him further down a path of apparent self-sabotage, but only if read within a system that idealizes the capitalist trajectories of music industry-approved artists. He’s been open about his objection to the expectation that, in each interview, he must provide raw material for the media to shape his identity into something marketable. As he told Under the Radar, “I guess I feel really disillusioned by — and no offense to you — but having to continuously do interviews in order to promote myself so that I can have some money so that I can have some modicum of freedom for the first time in my life.”
His disdain for this system, and his various efforts to erase himself from it, are a matter of deliberate self-creation through self-negation, a fulfillment of the Marx/Engels-prized (and critiqued, and reconsidered) Hegelian concept of the negation of the negation, wherein a contradiction results in nothingness, and from that arises something higher than that which came before. It’s also just his life, and his music. Since Beal is one of the rare artists who refuses to be owned by anything or anyone with an air of corporate trend-mongering, perhaps the seeming tenuousness of everything that makes up his current existence is proof of the emergence of the second negation. The first single from Noctunes, “Flying So Low,” is sung “flying solo” — it’s at once an admission of near defeat, of newfangled isolation, but perhaps also of loneliness’ generative properties.
The process by which Beal ended up in this position — and by which he ended up releasing Noctunes in the midst of it — seems to have begun in early 2014, when his major European tour was cancelled by his label. The Guardian reported that nobody would tell them why this had happened. When they tried to reach his manager, an automated message said, “I no longer manage Willis Earl Beal.” The newspaper concluded, “No one, it seems, wants to talk about him.” When the journalist spoke with him, it was from Lake Saint Clair, where he’d just moved with his wife. They were nearly snowed in at their home. “As I talk to you now, I’m looking at evergreen trees, fir trees and an icy wonderland paradise,” he’d said, noting that it was “absolutely all right” to be packed into the house by snow with his new wife. Since then, both his marriage and his contracts with XL have dissolved completely.
Perhaps this could have been foreseen: among the songs on 2013’s Nobody Knows, Beal’s most polished album to date, were titles like “Everything Unwinds,” “Disintegrating,” and “Burning Bridges.” One of the reasons for his dispute with XL was that he’d been pressured to tour with a band, though he preferred to perform alone, with only a reel-to-reel machine backing him. Beal’s individualism could be seen as egotism, but that seems the farthest thing from what he’s seeking. His form of self-creation — what his music evokes, and what the handle for his website itself emphasizes — is “nobody, nothing.” He’s been known to wear a “Zorro-esque” mask to interviews, and his mascot, of sorts, is a face, eyes X-ed out, mouth agape, possibly in song. It appears on various album covers, and on the T-shirts he wears:
This, particularly, seems to have baffled some people at his label — that, or they saw it as an affront. “I had this emblem, this ‘nobody’ symbol and this whole philosophy about subverting capitalism… and promoting things that I started to believe in over time. For [an undisclosed person at XL], I believe that was a little bit too much,” he told Under the Radar.
On the occasion that Beal did tour with a band, he called them the “Church of Nothing,” a nondenominational musical sanctuary of sorts, espousing the assertion that, “The only thing that is important is that you understand that we’re all interconnected. I am nothing. Nothing is everything.” The archive on his website is called “The Book of Nobody.” You get the picture (or, fine, the picture’s negative). Noctunes is the apotheosis, of sorts, of this shedding of media-courting selfhood: his work, while with XL, came out sounding like this:
In the meantime, both Noctunes and Beal’s previous, self-released album, last year’s Experiments in Time, have shed the blues-derivative quality heard above, while also jettisoning notions of structure we attribute to the catharsis of song. Noctunes‘ are soft and exhaustedly mournful tracks, all documenting — as Björk’s Vulnicura recently did — the escalating awareness of the deterioration of love. Like an endless night, the songs bear little in the way of percussive punctuation; even the more rhythmic tracks seem as though they could expand forever, carrying the listener — seduced by Beal’s intimate timbre — away into an unremittingly sad infinity.
“It’s supposed to help the listener fall asleep and if they can’t sleep, then listening to the lyrics should be basically relatable if you have a broken heart,” Beal told Paper. Lullabies are, of course, noted for their simplicity, for being unassuming enough to be sung by, say, a parent with the self-effacing warmth and generosity of wanting your words to make a child sleep, to sooth into a state of blissful disappearance. Beal had said, in the past, that all he ever wanted to do was to write lullabies — another display of longing for self-negation.
In detaching himself, perhaps in a way that would make concerned fans nervous, from the systems desperate to make him a commodified someone, he’s embodied capitalism’s greatest form of “nobody”: a vagabond, a man without property. In his self-fulfilling prophetic prizing of nobody/nothingness, he has, indeed, achieved something musically evocative of the interconnected endgame of such negations.
Apart from divorcing him from these systems, Noctunes‘ songs are lullabies of his literal divorce, of removal, and of solitude. People can connect to them on two levels, based on their own experiences of heightened isolation: sleep and heartbreak. Through negation of the negation, Marx posited that private property could become at once social and individual. It seems that through systemically negating himself, Beal has achieved his desire for freedom, as an artist, from the capitalist manacles of a trend-encapsulated self; his is an act of negation that reaches for universality, while proving him even more of an individual, with ownership over himself. The penultimate track on Noctunes, “Start Over,” bears the most memorable note on the album: Beal stretches his voice to howling falsetto on the word “anew.” His delivery of that note is the triumph, a self-affirmation bolstered by a meticulous career of self-negation.