Iron & Wine, “Beast Epic”

Iron & Wine
Beast Epic
SUB POP
7/10

It’s never been difficult imagining Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam leisurely trekking along a trail in a thick wood. When he first emerged in 2002 with his debut of bedroom recordings The Creek Drank the Cradle, an album full of hushed acoustic folk songs that barely obscured the hiss of the four-track tape it was recorded on, Beam quickly became a best-kept secret among the roots music community. Two years later with Our Endless Numbered Days, he cemented his status as one of the best pastoral shepherds into modern Americana, delivering a work full of rural romanticism and wood-cut acoustics.

As much as the fans he acquired during these early years wished he wouldn’t have, Beam began taking gradual deviations from his bare-bones approach, incorporating a full band and playing with world influences on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, slicker production textures and experimentation on 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean, and light jazz–inflected rhythm and horns on 2013’s Ghost on Ghost.

With Beast Epic, Beam seems to have found that long-left forest path again, bringing with him in the process all the lessons of composition and arrangement from his previous expansive works and turning them inward. From his quiet count-in during the first few seconds of opening track “Claim Your Ghost,” to his searching last line “What will become of us?” in its concluding cut “Our Light Miles,Beast Epic is Iron & Wine’s most satisfyingly unembellished collection of songs to date.

One of the more pleasing aspects of this new album is just how audibly close it all feels. With every ringing thrum of a chord, pick of a string, and slide of Beam’s hand along the frets, you can practically smell the tree his guitar was carved out of. The resulting sensation obviously stems from his going back to recording each track live and implementing minimal overdubs, and the record is all the better for it. There’s a crispness and warmth to Beast Epic that is unmistakable.

What really elevates the album, however, is how Beam utilizes his team of backing players in each song. They never overpower or draw attention to themselves, and in doing so create an organic and subtle depth to the arrangements. You’re aware that others are in the room—lingering on the draw of a bow on a fiddle, plucking a stand-up bass, or offering an accompanying piano fill—but it all feels unfussed over, like they’re all just casually following Beam’s lead.   

As much as Beast Epic’s music feels like a look back with a head full of experience, it doesn’t stop Beam from keeping his lyrical gaze on what’s ahead of him. He obsesses on the passage of time, and on what’s in store for him when his own leaf-covered trail comes to its inevitable conclusion, singing lines like, “Our winter keeps running us down” (“Claim Your Ghost”), “There’s nowhere safe to bury all the time I’ve killed / Nobody looks away when the sun goes down” (Thomas County Law), and “It’s our last night to lie in these arms” (“Last Night”). Mortality hovers constantly over the record, but it never feels ominous. It’s reflective and Emerson-esque.

It’s also worth noting that in almost every track Beam makes reference to music (“clumsy and free”) and song (“some call it bitter truth / some call it getting even”), at one point singing in the track “Song in Stone” that birds give “their hymns for life.” He makes it explicitly clear that he himself is providing his own hymns, and that when he’s long gone from the world, the music will hopefully remain. With a record like Beast Epic, there won’t be many in this world that will forget who Sam Beam was.

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