Interviews with Willis Earl Beal are often described as “wide-ranging” or “rambling.” But Beal — ex-X Factor, ex-Army and now ex-XL Recordings — has always had a loose focus on the tension between creation and capitalism, and how ideal it could be to be nothing at all. His last album, he told Pitchfork, came with a manifesto: “I am nothing, nothing is everything.” On Experiments in Time, his third LP and first without a label, he can consider that mission accomplished. Whereas his previous works pushed genres like the blues and folk to their psycho-sexual breaking points, “Same Auld Tears” sounds neo-noir as keyboards bubble and his brilliantly nimble voice evokes the calm, collected tension of Humphrey Bogart’s Phillip Marlow. It bleeds smoothly into “Monotony” (a different take on a track from his first album; Beal has a thing for repetition), which takes a sing-songy approach to his koans: “In the eye of the storm/ it seems I was born/ I have taken my form/ at 12 o’clock in the morn.” Beal may never be able to escape comparisons to Tom Waits, thanks to his affinity for hyper-nostalgic, lower-than-lo-fi simulacra, but his lyrics call to mind Bob Pollard: rambling, occasionally sexual (“I’m holding on to her dress/ I can’t release”) diatribes that wouldn’t be out of place in a dream or a Tolstoy short story about the Devil.
Experiments also showcases new facets of Beal’s vocal powers. The falsetto on “In Your Hands,” the monotone sneer of “Waste It Away,” the way he lightly falls over the word “fails” on “Heads or Tails” all pay off on close listens. But the single-mindedness of the project might frustrate: Staples of previous projects, like absurdist humor and playful stances toward traditional song structure are gone. The music on Experiments varies but never changes: Guitars get picked, Beal’s voice rises and falls, the whole thing feels very cyclical, a clearly intentional move. Beal has made a very effective album: It aspires to nothing and there’s enough to delve into, as it’s the type of nothing communicated through an earnest, if at times convoluted sincerity. But it’s easy to hope he starts making something soon.