Album Review: Willis Earl Beal – A Place That Doesn’t Exist

Singer, songwriter Willis Earl Bearl

Singer, songwriter Willis Earl Bearl

Chicago songwriter Willis Earl Beal makes unkempt, avant-garde folk that evokes everyone from Blind Willie McTell to Tilt-era Scott Walker. On his new EP, A Place That Doesn’t Exist, which he dropped on a whim last week as an apology after canceling a string of European shows, Beal seems to have found a happy medium between his two idiosyncratic extremes, balancing the noisy, nomadic lo-fi of 2012’s Acousmatic Sorcery with the studio-sharpened orchestration of last year’s Nobody knows.

No song here is quite able match the devastatingly gorgeous “Everything Unwinds” from Nobody knows., but there’s still plenty to linger on. Opener “Times of Gold” manages to be both a beautiful ballad and an effective exercise in sparseness, featuring only Beal’s weary croon, an acoustic guitar, and the warm crackle of a stereo. The industrial wobble of “Took My Heart”, meanwhile, would make for a convincing TV on the Radio outtake, with Beal doing his best Tunde Adebimpe impression by whistling over the song’s cacophonous outro. Other standout cuts follow the “Times of Gold” model for sonic simplicity, namely the country-tinged “Babble On” and “The Axeman”, which pairs a wacky, near grotesque story about a mystery man with “a bald head and a fat midsection” to a breezy, island shuffle.

The biggest flaw of A Place That Doesn’t Exist is the overabundance of spoken word songs, which are deliberately goofy and disrupt the record’s short-lived melancholic momentum. Perhaps the rambling, Wild Man Fischer-esque “Toilet Parade (Ode to NYC)” would fit snugly on Acousmatic Sorcery, but here it doesn’t mesh with the folk ballads at all. More than anything, though, this gripe is reflective of Beal’s songwriting abilities. You wish all of the EP’s eight songs were folk ballads because he’s so damn good at writing them. A Place That Doesn’t Exist may be a summation of his career so far, a melting pot of every quirk and artistic inclination. But, in throwing everything against the wall, it’s not hard to see what he does best.

Essential Tracks: “Took My Heart”, “Times of Gold”, and “Babble On”

We’ll pass along A Place That Doesn’t Exist release info if and when it emerges. Here’s the tracklist:

1 Times of Gold
2 Bright Copper Noon
3 Took My Heart
4 The Axeman
5 Toilet Parade (Ode to NYC)
6 Babble On
7 Hazel Eyes
8 A Place That Doesn’t Exist

Interview: Promising soul act Willis Earl Beal: ‘I am nobody’ & Music Video

Beal was born in Chicago, Illinois. In his early twenties Beal joined the US Army, moving to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Beal was medically discharged from the army due to intestinal problems. He then returned to Chicago where he worked at Sears Tower, following a five month hospital stay.

In 2007, Beal moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here Beal spent some time homeless, and working entry-level jobs, notably as a night-shift security guard. During this time Beal began to record music, leaving CD-Rs in public spaces around Albuquerque.

Beal would also leave self-illustrated flyers around the town in the hope of finding a girlfriend. One of these flyers was discovered by Found Magazine who put Beal on the cover of their magazine. Found later released a limited-edition box set called The Willis Earl Beal Collection, which included Beal’s poetry, artwork and a 17-song album. Through these flyers and the subsequent coverage in Found, Beal was contacted by more than 100 members of the public. Beal participated in auditions for Simon Cowell’s The X Factor television show, but dropped out of the “boot-camp” stage of the competition.

In 2012, Beal signed a recording contract with Hot Charity, an imprint of independent record label, XL Recordings. Beal’s first single for the labels, “Evening’s Kiss” was released on February 17, 2012 and the accompanying music video was illustrated by Beal. Beal’s debut album, entitled Acousmatic Sorcery was released on April 2, 2012.

His new album is titled Nobody knows. and was released in the US on September 10th, 2013. He will also star in a film entitled ‘MEMPHIS’ directed by Tim Sutton which premiered at the 2013 Venice film festival.

Published on Sep 24, 2013

From the Incubate festival website:
One of the most authentic soul voices in modern music, and a terrifyingly intense live performer
His voice is so intimidating it could be a bouncer for a nightclub. His voice is so sensual it could satisfy all your girlfriends while you’re out of town. He is Willis Earl Beal. He came from the streets, and over the last years he has become one of the most intense soul performers around. Style over substance over style over substance, Beal knows that he needs to entertain people to get them to listen. And listen we will.