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”