Fire Note Says: Sam Beam takes Iron & Wine back to basics on LP number six.
Album Review: Ever since the first Iron & Wine album, 2002’s The Creek Drank The Cradle, the band has consistently added new dimensions to their basic sound. From the dense, layered production of The Shepherd’s Dog to the keyboard textures of Kiss Each Other Clean and the jazz experimentation of Ghost On Ghost, Sam Beam and his rotating cast of players have repeatedly challenged what an Iron & Wine record is supposed to sound like. That recurring history of sonic departures is what makes Beast Epic something of an outlier in their catalogue: rather than a new direction, this is the first Iron & Wine album to refine rather than reinvent, feeling less like a new take on the band than a summation of what they’ve accomplished so far.
The overall sound of Beast Epic is somewhere between Our Endless Numbered Days and Shepherd’s Dog, though at best that only partially describes the instrumentation. Like those earlier works, this is a mostly acoustic record, with finger-picked guitars and tinkling pianos balanced by upright bass and shuffling drums. Light touches of pedal steel guitar, mandolin, organ, and other instruments occasionally filter in, but the focus is always on Beam’s vocals. His voice has come a long way since the hushed whispers of The Creek Drank The Cradle and it’s as strong here as it’s ever been, carrying both the melodies and lyrics with ease.
Beam’s lyrics have always emphasized imagery over straightforward storytelling, and Beast Epic is no exception. “Thomas County Law,” for example, paints an abstract portrait of small town weirdness and anxiety, where “every traffic light is red when it tells the truth” and “the church bell isn’t kidding when it cries for you.” And while he’s no protest singer, Beam slips in some political commentary here and there, as in “The Truest Stars They Know,” where he sings about “Jesus and his trophy wives / praying for the suicides and the orphans / save us all from what we want.” In a sense it’s kind of “southern gothic” aesthetic we’ve come to expect from an Iron & Wine album, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
From one perspective, then, Beast Epic is a “safe” record, potentially disappointing after a string of albums that interrogated what an Iron & Wine album could be. From another viewpoint, though, it might be seen as the culmination of those earlier experiments; instead of adding new pieces to the puzzle, Sam Beam is starting to put it together. It may not be as surprising as previous releases have been, but there’s something oddly compelling about an Iron & Wine album emphasizing craft over novelty. If this is the sound of Sam Beam settling into a groove, then it’s about time.
Key Tracks: “Call It Dreaming” / “Thomas County Law” / “About A Bruise”
Artists With Similar Fire: Nick Drake / Sufjan Stevens / Jose Gonzalez
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-Reviewed by Simon Workman