Willis Earl Beal’s Circular Victory

Turn.  Circle.  Sun.  Moon.

These are the four words that comprise the title of the latest collection of songs by Willis Earl Beal.  The title is not only succinct–it also could not be more apt.

(the album doesn’t have a physical release yet but can be purchased for download at this link.)

All four of the words imply a kind of motion, an orbital, cyclical, or circuital movement (in the case of sun and moon, these motions are dependent on the motions of others).  Beal–who professionally wishes you’d call him Nobody–doesn’t choose words (or melodies, or masks) carelessly.

Sonically, these songs–like much of his recent material–consist of rising and falling keyboard dirges that weave in and out of prominence, often cycling back to where they started, but just as often running like a steady current behind Beal’s  plaintive vocals.  Within the framework of this wide-open musical canvas, Beal still manages to find unexpected nooks and crannies to place his vocal rhythms–he’s suddenly jumping out at you from a corner you didn’t even see–or he’s hiding in it.  Add to this a production value of lo-fi immediacy (I often felt like I could hear him change positions in a chair) and the cumulative effect is one of urgency, despite the modest tempo of the tunes, each song still manages to make you feel as though you are in the grip of strong stuff that is racing to an end.

But to “review” this album in any typical way would be like trying to review a cloud, or dirt.  That statement sounds preposterous, I know, but there it is, just the same.  As he continues to evolve as a songwriter and musician, Beal keeps mining material that gets closer and closer to the elemental; this is art like wind, or the subliminal functioning of a gland.  One feels these songs pass through you like quarks.

Beal has often layered the vocals one on top of another, giving the impression that they rotate around one another (like, for instance, the moon around the Earth and the Earth around the Sun); it’s like Beal orbiting Beal, at first the words just one more sonic tool, one more instrument, but eventually the words start to coagulate and meaning attaches to the dirge.

They are songs of loneliness, and love, and helplessness, and yearning.  From the opening song “Stroll”, where we are taken on a midnight constitutional with our narrator contemplating the greater meanings of the universe, to the closing number “Sun & Moon” with it’s sad binary truth (“I am night/ And you are day”), I felt connected to every song; ultimately, they are deeply human.  We experience the resignation to hopelessness, but also perfect hope (again in “Sun & Moon”: ‘But I will see you tomorrow”).  As we continue orbiting and turning, we experience the push and pull of our contrary desires: to be alone, but to be loved.  To be anonymous, but to be great.  When I invested myself in these songs, I felt understood, but also complex.

In “Cowboy”, we are presented with lyrics so brazen, bold, and current as to warrant presenting some without comment: “Passing places through the mall/ Empty faces filling all/ Hear the laughter off the walls/ Birthday presents for you all/ Know resistance while you can/ Avoid incessant clapping hands/ Put your face in garbage cans/ Take the trash do what you can/Recycle all your wasted shit/ There are people trying to quit/ (You’re a cowwwwwwwwboy/Roping all your bulls.)”

In “Release” we are presented with the lyric “You must let go of all the linear victories”, which is a boy-howdy of a line; you could chew on that line for days.  What is a linear victory?  How do we let go of it?  Like the best art, the songs offer some answers, but not all of them.  However, who knows? If you let these quark-songs flow through you enough, maybe the answers will find you.

The art of Willis Earl Beal–Nobody–has been an undercurrent in my life for years now, and this album more than any others before is like a chameleon, a changeling.  As I listen to it it darts away into my peripheral vision and changes shape, form.  It’s hard to hold onto.

Currently, “Turn, Circle, Sun & Moon” does not have a physical release, but can be purchased for download by clicking this link.  If you buy it, it will almost certainly be a linear victory for you–but at the moment, that’s still the only kind I know how to get.

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