willis earl beal’s surprise new album: sounds beamed in from an alternate past fill this awesome set. #soundcheck

January 31, 2014

When Willis Earl Beal bust onto the scene a few years back it came with heady discussions about what “outsider art” means. To put an undeniably great songwriter (who no-one’s denying is a little weird) in the same category though, as “are they in on it?” artists like Wesley Willis or Florence Foster Jenkins is more than a little reductive. What “outsider art” (if it’s applicable at all…) seems to mean where Willis Earl Beal is concerned is an uncompromising vision and sincerity and a willingness to buck the industry whenever it suits him. And maybe it’s that lack of attention to “how things are done” that invites declarations of “outsiderness.” So despite releasing his sophomore album Nobody Knows just a few months ago, this soul/folk singer is back with a new set of solo material A Place That Doesn’t Exist.

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

The 8-track album finds Beal continuing to explore the space between Sam Cooke, Tom Waits, Harry Nilsson, and Lou Barlow. Standout tracks like “Times of Gold,” “The Axeman,” and “Babble On” sit on top of a bed of faux vinyl crackle. The effect gives the tracks, which are largely dominated by Beal’s delicately finger-picked acoustic guitar, a feeling of being a document from an alternate past. But it’s a curious choice for an artist most noted for his unflinching sincerity to add a faux vintage affectation to a set of songs that would feel as gloriously out-of-time without it. That feeling is best captured on the fantastic “Hazel Eyes.” With an arrangement that would have made Isaac Hayes proud, the ballad unashamedly displays the tape hiss beneath flutes and piano while Willis Earl Beal recites a poem of apology. It highlights everything that’s great about Beal; the heartfelt directness, the beautifully dissonant accompaniment, the sound.

So Willis Earl Beale probably doesn’t fit the qualifications for “outsider artist.” On A Place That Doesn’t Exist, he shows himself to be merely a bold brilliant young artist with a unique sound and uncompromising vision.

The album is currently streaming on Soundcloud (see player above). Beal has indicated his desire to release it for free. Hopefully we’ll know more about that soon.