Illusory Walls is a unification of The World is a Beautiful Place’s mythic ethos and philosophical ruminations, a bit of a rehash in content but an impressive distillation that hopefully points the band’s way forward.
One of the rare, great Connecticut bands (though they apparently identify as Philadelphia-based these days) The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die quickly gained a devoted national following in and around 2013, coinciding with the release of their debut album Whenever, If Ever. This quickly placed them at the forefront of the emo revival thing music blogs were attempting to codify in this moment, yet the band soon revealed themselves to have their sights set on something far grander than reductive trendiness with massive follow-up LP Harmlessness, an operatic work that loomed above most releases in 2015. The World is a Beautiful Place hasn’t always been the easiest group to pin down, their ranks actively growing and shrinking erratically over the years (at one point they boasted 8 members; currently 5) with bassist Josh Cyr the only remaining founder. Despite this lineup fluidity, there has been a consistent core holding it down since Whenever, If Ever, anchoring the band’s vision and philosophy as articulated in dueling vocalists David Bello and Katie Dvorak’s melodically whiny register. And now, nine years on, those two, Cyr, Steven Buttery, and Chris Teti arrive with their fourth album, Illusory Walls (named in reference to FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series, maybe an inevitable touchpoint), yet another big, ambitious work that finds The World is a Beautiful Place attempting to unify their project thus far while reckoning with political and interpersonal turmoil.
Bridging the divide between the mythic, existential Harmlessness and its more compact, literally-minded follow up Always Foreign, Illusory Walls returns the band to that former album’s more expansive canvas and earnest philosophical ruminations, this time grounded by the post-Trump sociopolitical lens they embraced on the latter album. It’s a convincing summation of the band’s progression thus far, tackled with their usual unflinching earnestness and now familiar instrumentation flourishes — cinematic strings, sweeping guitar breakdowns, rousing vocal harmonies, occasional veers into synth pop, etc. The World is a Beautiful Place’s tricks are well cataloged at this point, but still expertly employed, openers “Afraid to Die” and “Queen Sophie for President” exemplifying the band’s dynamicism, shifting from charmingly self-serious hardcore to whimsical pop, and back. Obviously confident in their process at this point, the worst the songs on Illusory Walls could be accused of is roteness within the context of the band’s discography, not so much a progression of the band’s ideas, but a reflection on them. They also have a harder time articulating their perception of the current political climate here than they did on Always Foreign, which was just direct enough in its condemnation of American life during Trump’s first year in office. There’s even more of this on Illusory Walls, and while the tendencies of the genre ask one to allow for a level of unvarnished emotional appeal they might not otherwise, tracks like “Blank // Worker” (their Springsteen song?) unfortunately tend to lose track of the poetic in pursuit of harsh, real-world truth.
But where the political realm confounds, self-mythology proves inspiring for The World is a Beautiful Place, who reorient nicely by the album’s end with tremendous closers: the 15-minute “Infinite Josh” and 19-minute “Fewer Afraid,” both riffing on the band’s history and the evolution of their ideology in relation to this last chaotic decade. “Fewer Afraid” brings back unofficial member and spoken-word artist Christopher Zizzamia to deliver a poem that could reasonably act as thesis for the album in total and mission statement for the band, reflecting on grief as a uniting human characteristic and motivating agent to work toward something better. Closing out the song with an interpolation of Whenever, If Ever track “Getting Sodas,” Bello and Dvorak shout: “The world is a beautiful place, but we have to make it that way / Whenever you find home, we’ll make it more than just a shelter / If everyone belongs there, it will hold us all together / If you’re afraid to die, then so am I.” It’s a vigorous and endearing confirmation of their commitment to carrying on The World is a Beautiful Place project into this new decade — one that will hopefully provide this band with some new inspiration.
Published as part of Album Roundup — October 2021 | Part 4.