Artist: Iron & Wine
Album: Beast Epic
In Brief: Sam Beam is a skillful songwriter, his voice is always soothing, and his lyrics are always intriguing. But his decision to revert back to the simpler style of his earlier efforts makes for a rather underwhelming album. I like both the layered, experimental side of Iron & Wine and the hushed, laid-back, folksy side, and it seems like a step backwards to cast off one side for the sake of the other.
I have a habit of reacting negatively when an artist I’ve grown to appreciate more and more for expanding the breadth and depth of their sound over subsequent records suddenly seems to snap back to an earlier version of themselves. I really try to question myself whenever I catch this happening, asking myself if increasing complexity is always necessary for artistic growth, and if all the sonic bells and whistles and surprises that drew me into previous albums are necessary accouterments that the songs wouldn’t have been the same without. It’s not like I have a short attention span, and need to be distracted with all manner of weird noises just to keep me focused on what an artist is trying to say. But I’ll be honest, I’ve never been much of a “three chords and the truth” guy. I appreciate it when an artist can achieve that tricky balance between diversity and consistency over the course of an album. I don’t disdain simplicity just on principle, and I often appreciate a simpler and/or quieter song as a breather in between more densely layered or instrumentally/structurally challenging material, at least when the transition back and forth isn’t too abrupt. But when an artist seems to be purposefully stripping their sound back to something simpler as a matter of principle, it often rubs me the wrong way, as if it’s dismissive of those albums in between that other fans bugged them about because it didn’t sound like the good old days. I’m often at odds with those kinds of fans, who from my point of view, can’t seem to look past an artist’s early sound and appreciate the growth that’s happened in the meantime.
Is this what’s happening with Iron & Wine, the moniker of singer/songwriter Sam Beam, on his newest album Beast Epic? I can’t say for sure. I’ve been a fan of I&W since his acclaimed 2004 release, Our Endless Numbered Days, which was his second full-length album, and the first to feature more conventional studio production as opposed to the four-track demos that made up his debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle. Fans and critics alike often seem to venerate those two albums as Beam’s best, and fret over his gradual transition to more of a dense, cinematic sound, often making the case that the intimacy of his early work had been lost in the shuffle. Our Endless Numbered Days was the happy medium, with some slightly more intricate arrangements, but for the most part still a very laid-back, folksy record, and his approach there seems to be the kind of thing he’s aiming for once again on Beast Epic. In the intervening years came The Shepherd’s Dog, Beam’s third album which solidified his shift to a more complex, harder-to-classify sound, which to my ears was an instant classic then, and still a record I’ll defend to the death now. To be fair, that one seems like it did pretty well with critics. The next few albums weren’t quite as well received. Kiss Each Other Clean was all over the place stylistically, almost comically so, seeming to establish the outer boundaries of where beam could venture musically without completely alienating his fanbase. It was fun, but not my favorite. Ghost on Ghost, on the other hand, felt like a step back in a more organic direction, but it had strong elements of jazz and sunny AM radio pop to compliment the more familiar folksy sound that fans were clamoring for a return to. I’d also defend that record as a classic, but it seems not as many folks were on board with me there. Beam’s desire for outsized experimentation seems to have been whittled down to a dull roar nowadays, as evidenced by the meek collaboration Love Letter For Fire that he did with Jesca Hoop last year, which had some compelling songwriting and lovely vocal harmonies, but which was underwhelming compared to the individual personalities of both artists. Beast Epic, in what seems to be a complete betrayal of that title, features a number of songs that could very well be interchangeable with the songs from Love Letter For Fire, and aside from the absence of Hoop, I’d be none the wiser. It’s a sometimes intriguing, but mostly easygoing and unfussy, collection of mellow folk songs. I can’t really say anything bad about most of them. But I can’t get terribly excited about most of them, either.
It’s worth pointing out that for a lot of listeners, stripping back the instrumentation allows for more of a focus on the songwriting. And this is an area where Beam never disappoints. I’m often torn over whether I think the music should scale to be as large or as small, as easygoing or as tortured, as the lyrics it accompanies. Since a lot of Beam’s lyrics are very impressionistic and hint at the shady underbelly of the otherwise idyllic Deep South he’s always called home, I go back and forth between appreciating how his soothing delivery can cause some of his lyrical observations to take me by surprise, and wishing that a few of his songs had a little more bite to them. One constant over Beam’s career has been the use of religious imagery side-by-side with descriptions of seedy or even scandalous situations. I often can’t say for sure what the exact message of a song is, but the general impression that the beauty of these places and the piety of these people might only run skin deep comes through time and again. On this album in particular, the few times Jesus gets name-dropped are in unsettling contexts, paradoxically in the midst of songs that might otherwise seem laid-back, even wistfully romantic. I know Beam is intentional in how he exploits that dichotomy. So fair warning, if you’re the type who expects religious lyrics to always accompany a clear endorsement or else a criticism of an ideology you either ascribe to or despise – it’s never that straightforward with this guy.
And despite my critique of the music on this record being rather ho-hum as a whole, I have to say that I do recognize a few stronger moments where a flowing melody really captivates me, or the instrumentation does something subtle but unexpected that goes beyond the norm of “just strum a guitar or play some simple piano chords to a slow tempo and let the vocals do the real work”. I may miss the moments where something like a synth or a rowdy electric guitar would creep into an otherwise pastoral folk song, or a faster tempo would allow Beam to stack up a dizzying and impressive array of alliterative allegories in the space of just a few minutes. But let’s be fair. Some of my favorite Iron & Wine songs in the past were among the most tranquil ones – “Naked As We Came”, “Fever Dream”, “Grey Stables”, “Resurrection Fern”, “Godless Brother in Love”, “Joy”. I’m not quite as drawn to any song here as I am to all of those, but if that’s your favorite side of Iron & Wine, you might find a lot more to love about Beast Epic than I did.
1. Claim Your Ghost
I don’t mind at the outset of this record that the instrumentation is a bit sparse. There are plenty of pregnant pauses in this first track, which actually makes it seem like more of a conclusion than an introduction, but you can hear the little details like Beam counting off the rhythm, and tapping the body of his guitar to keep time during the pauses when he’s not strumming, and I do appreciate the sense of intimacy this provides. Later on, a piano, cello, and drums join in to give it more of a “full band” feel, but it still feels like something he might have done for a stripped-down, live-in-studio performance if this song had been more dressed up on a previous album. Beam’s lyrics on this continually cycle back to the intriguing refrain “Killers let go”, and when combined with the chorus which states “Claim your ghost, know the wine for what it is”, it almost feels like a call for someone who had committed the gravest of sins to surrender and accept God’s mercy. Except of course Beam isn’t using this language to communicate a religious belief; he’s borrowing it to hint at something that I can only guess isn’t as straightforward as the interpretation my mind is trained to wander to when it hears those words. That’s part of a larger puzzle I’ll likely never solve in a lot of Iron & Wine’s lyrics.
2. Thomas County Law
The title alone tells me to expect something in the vein of classic Iron & Wine on this one. While I’m not feeling much of anything for the slow, steady guitar picking in 3/4 (which feels too much like the overall pace of the opening track to sound like it should be right next to it), I do have to admit that the lyrics here provide one of Beam’s more haunting portrayals of Southern life. He’s very matter-of-fact about how “No one looks away when the sun goes down” in the titular county, implying that law enforcement is crooked there and that a simple speed trap could lead an innocent passer-by to a world of hurt. While economic disparity is alluded to in the line “There are castles for kings, there are birds without wings”, racism may be the vice that lurks behind this county’s sinister portrayal. Basically I think Beam’s describing a “sundown town”, a place with an all-white population where minorities are warned (explicitly in the pre-Civil Rights era, in more nefarious ways since then) that they’d better not find themselves there after dark. It’s a grim and uninviting place, based on the sketch Beam paints, and I can’t help but think back to the song “Sodom, South Georgia” on Our Endless Numbered Days, which may well have been describing the very same place. Most interesting is his admission that “I may say I don’t belong here, but I know I do.” I wish there was a little more drama to the arrangement here, and I also wish the melody built to something more climactic instead of repeating a simple verse/chorus structure. This one’s more interesting to me as a poem than it is as a song, unfortunately.
3. Bitter Truth
The melody of this song immediately feels like classic, soothing Iron & Wine, but it’s almost too relaxed given that the lyrics seem to be describing a breakup. I can’t recall a lot of breakup songs in the I&W catalogue, but maybe I just need a memory jog? I’d never assume Beam is writing these songs from his own perspective – so many either fictional or historical characters seem to inhabit his work that it’s just easier to assume this is about someone he knows or just plain made up, instead of himself. But it’s more of a direct “you and me” conversation than a lot of his songs, with a relationship slowly withering away behind the appearance of domestic bliss, while blame gets thrown back and forth and the oblique threat is made in retaliation, “Some call it getting even in a song.” So why is the music so darn friendly here? If this song were about just cruising through the countryside on a lazy Sunday, the acoustic guitar, gentle drums, light piano, and even lighter backing vocals would all fit in rather nicely, but considering the subject matter, it’s maddening to me that this song seems to be grasping for a level of angst that it’s far too well-mannered to reach.
4. Song in Stone
This song really took me by surprise. After a listen or two, I didn’t think the ingredients were much different from elsewhere on the album. But sometimes a little attention to the right details is all it takes to turn a song from bland to colorful, at least in the mind of this listener. The acoustic guitar picking is a little more complex here, following a simple but beautifully flowing melody that is accentuated by warm cello, with a few other stringed instruments joining in later on. The mood is very autumnal, the kind of thing I can imagine listening to while marveling at the changing colors of the trees on your way down a country lane. Beam’s vocals exude the sort of warmth they need to here, as he seems to be making an oblique declaration of love to someone, by way of analogies involving birds and trees and the various colors of nature – simple stuff on the surface, but it does an incredible job of painting a picture on my mind. Then the chorus throws me this curveball – “Let the hands of the wrong prophets heal me all they should/Let the wine of the poison Jesuses taste good.” Even in a beautiful song like this, the “God-haunted” nature of it adds a darker dimension. I don’t understand it, but I’m fascinated by it. Throw in an especially lovely acoustic guitar solo during the bridge, as if Beam’s finger-picking wasn’t already captivating to my ears, and you’ve got the rare song on this album that I’d be willing to tack on to that list of favorite mellow Iron & Wine songs I made a few paragraphs ago.
5. Summer Clouds
Hey wait… wasn’t there already a song about clouds on the Jesca Hoop collaboration? Yeah, there was. It was called “Valley Clouds”, and it wasn’t one of the standouts for me, so while I’m sure this song is probably alluding to something different, it still bugs me to have two not-terribly-memorable songs about clouds on back-to-back albums. This song is maddeningly slow, poking along with seemingly nowhere important to be and no deadline to get there. The languid drums are definitely not helping the already dreary tempo of it. With the right arrangement, I’m sure I could find a lot to love about the subtle hues provided by the steel guitar and the subdued harmony vocals. I mean, it’s maybe a hair slower than “Passing Afternoon” on Our Endless Numbered Days, which was a reasonably good closing track on that album, so I’m not opposed to Beam being super-relaxed. Just give me some aspect of the performance to really sink my teeth into, y’know? The lyrics are somewhat interesting, using the titular clouds as an analogy for the universe itself making some sort of a false promise – like delivering rain when it appeared that a day was going to be bright and sunny. I’d be more inclined to puzzle over them if the song wasn’t so darn boring to listen to.
6. Call It Dreaming
This is the sort of mid-tempo, easygoing folk song that wouldn’t really catch my ear on most I&W albums… but hell, by this album’s standards, by the time this one comes along, I’m inclined to think of it as downright upbeat and breezy! It feels like it genuinely wants to be triumphant and uplifting, and for me it’s not quite getting there, but I’ll take the encouragement in small doses at this point. Even though the rhythm’s a basic 4/4, the guitar picking is slightly more intricate, not quite as lovely as “Song in Stone”, but that might be because the melody isn’t as strong here. I like how Beam’s determined to make lemonade from lemons here: “Any wind means we’re running/We can sleep and see ’em coming/Where we drift and call it dreaming/We can weep and call it singing.” The slightest bit of forward movement or optimistic ray of light shining through the dark clouds is a reason to celebrate, and that means a lot when juxtaposed with the darker, wearier lyrics of a lot of Beam’s songs. It’s a fine enough performance – I just can’t help but want to punch it up a bit – not to make it obnoxiously upbeat or anything, but just give it a bit more of a celebratory feel. I bet this would make an excellent set closer if Beam tweaked the arrangement so that it gave his live band something more exciting to do.
7. About a Bruise
This is the most playful song on the album. At least, musically speaking it is. And by that I mean, there’s the occasional witty lyric or cutesy background vocal trying to perk up the same-old same-old mid-tempo march that anything trying to be “upbeat” on this album doesn’t seem to want to get past. This seems to be another story of love gone wrong, possibly leading to a violent confrontation between a young boy and his lover’s angry father, which I’m guessing is what leads to the line “Tenderness to you is only talk about a bruise.” It’s a mildly interesting portrait of life in some small town somewhere in Alabama (the state is name-checked a few times in the song), where the ill-fated young lovers apparently grew up together. I can tell Beam wants to express his sense of humor here – the female voice that flatly responds “bang” to his line “Point at the birds, and then you’d say bang”, is worth a momentary chuckle, and later there are these old-timey backing vocals that were apparently brought in for whimsical effect. The bridge has an interesting moment where the plucking of strings and some rumbling piano chords start to build to a climax, only to get swept away by the standard procedure of the verse when it comes back in. It’s like this song is smirking at something that it isn’t sure should be joked about. As a result, I don’t really know how I’m supposed to react to it. This one honestly would have been perfect for the Jesca Hoop collaboration, since it has just that slight hint of whimsy to it that a good chunk of that album seemed to promise but not quite deliver.
8. Last Night
This song is a good example of how to keep the Iron & Wine sound sparse while still throwing the listener for a loop. The arrangement is pretty much all plucked strings here, with some more conventional string playing here and there, but for the most part, it’s got the kind of slow, slightly drunken wobble to it that I’d expect from a Punch Brothers deep cut. And that’s not a bad thing by any means. The arrangement fits Beam’s soothing yet slightly melancholy vocal melody, where he seems to be breathing a long sigh of weary surrender, as he and a lover resolve to spend one last night in each other’s arms before some sort of unstoppable force obliterates or at the very least forcibly separates them. I don’t might the quiet portrayal of tragedy if that’s what’s going on here. The arrangement implies both whimsy and sadness all at once, in a way that works quite well for me.
9. Right For Sky
This is not a long-winded album by any means. It breezes by at just over 35 minutes long, with this being the longest track at four minutes even. But it feels longer because of tracks like this that are so workmanlike and lacking in distinctiveness, that it’s honestly a chore for me to try and describe them in terms I haven’t already used. I straight up forget that this song is even here half the time. The melody’s too even-keel; Beam’s got the texture down as he does in most of his more delicate performances, but he isn’t giving us anything other than that to hang our hopes on. Even his lyrical sentiments this time around seem cut and pasted, as if Beam had a special magnetic poetry set full of vaguely charming and mildly menacing statements to put back-to-back. It all sounds pleasant enough, but it’s Iron & Wine by numbers at this point.
10. The Truest Stars We Know
Just a little syncopation, and less adherence to a rigidly dull rhythm, helps this song to come to life a bit more easily than some of the others did. I keep thinking of “Glad Man Singing”, the second-to-last track on Kiss Each Other Clean, when I hear this one, not because the two sound at all the same, but because they serve a similar function – to gently set us up for the finale with a refreshing melody that flows like a babbling brook. I’m probably saying that because both songs use a bit of river imagery. The imagery is working for me here. And there’s another startling Jesus reference just when I’m starting to get really comfortable: “Jesus and his trophy wives are praying for the suicides and the orphans”. WHOA. That’s more than a slightly unsettling image that I can’t even begin to unpack. I do wish there was a little more to this song – it ends a bit too early, just as the arrangement seems to be building to something. But an Iron & Wine album with simple but effective tracks like this one alongside some of the more layered and/or experimental stuff would be just what the doctor ordered.
11. Our Light Miles
I guess it makes sense for the last track to be a starker song. The problem is that the overall feel of this one – sparse, lots of pauses, a cautiously sung refrain in 3/4 time – is an awful lot like how the album opened. Starting out with similar song robs this whisper of a finale of its impact, I think. Imagine if only a few tracks on an Iron & Wine album were this stripped down – you’d naturally be more inclined to notice that this deliberate decision had been made and it would give the lyrics more gravity, wouldn’t it? Honestly, even then, this track would feel more like an ellipsis than a definitive ending. I like the imagery of rain and snow that give this song a reason for its starkness when I’m reading the lyrics, but none of them really register with me when I’m actually listening to the song. It seems like Beam is taking these last few minutes as a mental pause in the dead of winter, a little space to breathe and send up a prayer to whatever being he would consider a god, in the anticipation of an epiphany that never shows up before the album just trails off into nothingness.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Claim Your Ghost $1
Thomas County Law $.75
Bitter Truth $.50
Song in Stone $1.75
Summer Clouds –$.25
Call It Dreaming $.75
About a Bruise $1
Last Night $1.25
Right For Sky $0
The Truest Stars We Know $1
Our Light Miles $0
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: