Music critics (often) fall into two traps.
The first is comparison. Lacking a way to describe lyrics, songwriting, production and so on, critics get tempted to compare. We write about how a musician conforms to or subverts their genre. We provide a catalog of suggested listening, a list of similar musicians.
The second trap is a version of the first. It is the trap of focusing solely on how one project compares to the rest of the musician’s work. Maybe it should be called the trap of self-comparison. Musicians do not create in a vacuum and, of course, draw upon their previous work. But at a certain point, as a reviewer, I have to ask if I’m writing criticism or history.
It is especially hard to avoid the latter trap when writing about Iron & Wine. Sam Beam’s singer-songwriter project has left behind, on the surface, a tidy path over his 15 year career. Critics have alleged that Iron & Wine’s latest release — Beast Epic — completes the loop and cycles back to his earliest work.
Beam’s 2002 debut as Iron & Wine — The Creek Drank The Cradle — was a beautiful seed. It had a backwoodsy mythos. Beam recorded a set of demos on a four track, intending to flesh them out later. He never did. The album was hazy and subtle, filled to the brim with somber lyrics and overlaid guitars.
The production lost its lo-fi hiss, but Iron & Wine’s next three releases created similar worlds. Simple and evocative guitar lines were sometimes complemented with auxiliary percussion. Lyrics described intersecting feelings of tenderness and vulnerability, and the melancholy of loving while growing up. They didn’t fully hit you until hours later.
Beginning with his 2005 collaboration with Calexico — In The Reins — Iron & Wine’s sound swelled. Calexico brought a full-throated Americana influence to the tracks. Beam sounded more like a sly storyteller than an indie crooner.
2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog evidenced an exponential growth in arrangement. The album featured a smorgasbord of instruments and numerous, extended instrumental breaks. The whispered tranquility of Beam’s earlier projects surfaced on tracks like “Resurrection Fern,” but it was a break from the dizzying complexity of the rest of the album.
From then on, Beam practiced maximalism. 2009’s Around The Well returned to simpler song structures, but also clocked in at over an hour and a half long. On 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean and 2013’s Ghost On Ghost, Beam transformed from being a singer-songwriter who sometimes adorned his tracks with other influences to being a jazz/blues/Americana visionary.
Iron & Wine’s 2015 offerings may have foreshadowed the peeled back sound of Beast Epic. Beam released a collection of demos from the start of his career — Archive Series Volume No. 1 — and an album of covers with Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell — Sing Into My Mouth. The latter featured a vast stylistic array, ranging from the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place” to the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Ab’s Song,” and a cover painted by Southerner Todd Bienvenu.
But while the two albums may have signalled Beam’s desire to return to straightforward arrangements, they did not fully anticipate the stark power of Beast Epic. In the album, Beam seems to have finally captured the mixture of joy and resignation that he has sought to convey since The Creek Drank The Cradle.
“Our winter keeps running us down / We wake up with love hanging on,” Beam sings to open the album in “Claim Your Ghost.” Similarly forlorn, but mature, lyrics fill Beast Epic. In “Bitter Truth,” Beam sings, “You’d better love yourself, ‘cause I tried.” Beam’s lyrics meanings always hide around the corner, seeming to mean one thing, and then mean the opposite the next time you listen.
Beam’s earlier songs were short stories. On tracks like “House By The Sea,” “Boy With a Coin” and “Monkeys Uptown,” he sang about curious children and familial strife, filling out an ensemble of unnamed characters. Now, in Beast Epic, Beam has ditched fiction for memoir. On one hand, Beast Epic resembles Our Endless Numbered Days and The Creek Drank The Cradle far more than his recent work. But Beam himself rejects the idea that he’s returning home in any sense other than a nostalgic one. “By the end, we leave somewhere too long to ever wander back,” Beam sings on “Summer Clouds.”
Yet, Beast Epic lacks a hit. One of my favorite of Iron & Wine’s talents was his ability to create swelling, well, epics of songs. Each album felt like it had at least one track that was its emotional anchor.
The Creek Drank The Cradle had the rhythmically driven and despondent “Upward Over The Mountain.” Our Endless Numbered Days, the ambling, placid “Passing Afternoon.” The Shepherd’s Dog closes on an American mantra of a track, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” The long Around the Well appropriately ends with nine-plus minute long track “The Trapeze Swinger,” while Kiss Each Other Clean then opens with the biblically tinged “Walking Far From Home.”
But neither of Beast Epic’s two singles—“Thomas County Law” and “Call It Dreaming”—are standout hits. Maybe this is another facet of Iron & Wine’s maturity as an artist. The album is a collection of interesting, but not overwrought, tracks.
Each song has a message to convey, no one more than any other. While Beam belted out laments on past albums, he is now content to sing quietly, imparting thoughts with understated emotion. As he states in “Bitter Truth,” “Nothing makes silence like experience.”
Shay Collins is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].