In 2002, Sub Pop discovered Sam Beam, the mastermind behind indie-folk band Iron & Wine. He was a long-bearded man stitching together warm, folk tunes in his bedroom when he sent two full-length albums to Jonathan Poneman, co-owner of the record label.
Since his debut album, Creek and the Cradle, Beam has grown into a notable figure in the indie music scene: his poignant, hushed lyrics create vulnerable pockets of music for those who are ready to get their heart strings tugged by earthy acoustic guitars and sustained cello drawls.
When he moved around record labels, Beam’s music maintained the folk melodies Iron & Wine had become synonymous with, but there was an acute shift from the self-produced sound that first caught Poneman’s ear. His growing popularity lead into the experimental electronic-pop sounds found on his 2011 album, Kiss Each Other Clean. The album’s synthy crawls and mixed vocals distracted from Beam’s folk sound that listeners had fallen in love with. The sounds that caught mainstream attention in “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” in “Twilight” had evolved to such a point that he lost the soft, bluegrass-reminiscent pluckiness that held together his first albums.
In Beast Epic, his return to Sub Pop is warm, familiar and immediately evident in the count-into his opening track, “Claim Your Ghost.” In the middle of the song, the instrumentals halt as Beam sings “the garden grows into the our street, we’re holding the blossoms up high” — a silence that welcomes back Beam’s vocals and songwriting as the ultimate focus of his music. The image of flowers coming back into the pavement echo the themes of cyclicality and returning that underlie this album.
Although Beam has strayed in past years from the sounds of Our Endless Numbered Days, his lyricism in Beast Epic reminds the listener that he never really left. Through the experimentation of his most recent albums, Beast Epic shows that what marks Beam’s artistry as a folk musician has prevailed like the “light holding onto the ground” that he sings about in the last verse of “Claim Your Ghost”.
There is a sweet tone that holds up through the majority of the album. Even in the saddest songs, there is a tinge of hopefulness. Beam’s humility shines through in tracks like “About a Bruise.” He uses the imagery of deceptive garden weeds, theoretically bird shooting, and cooks blowing out candles to describe a past lover who believed that tenderness isn’t much more than “talk about a bruise.” Nevertheless, as the narrator, Beam also laments a wound from long ago by becoming the lyricist who is still hurt by someone in his past. He is both the person singing the song and the character he writes about — a graceful way of admitting to his own hypocrisy. The layering of these two characters is a reminder of the masterful songwriting of Iron & Wine.
Beast Epic strips down the experimentation of Beam’s recent past and brings back the original Iron & Wine of 2002. The simplicity doesn’t take away from the quality of the album’s production, but at times the tracks feel like they’re lacking complexity — there isn’t much to break up the tiny acoustic guitar and Beam’s whispered vocals. As Beam’s vocals become the focal point of the album, the musicality falls a bit flat. Although his past albums were leaning towards a pop-centric audience, they pushed the limits of Beam’s artistic capabilities.
The lyricism in Kiss Each Other Clean or Ghost on Ghost didn’t have the same poignance as Beast Epic, but the sounds were more complex. It was Beam playing with synths, electronica and R&B as he moved from label to label. His return to Sub Pop brings a sound that’s reminiscent of his roots, but it begs the question as to how much Beam’s record labels influence the sounds he produces.
With Beast Epic, there’s a note of consistency brought back to Iron & Wine’s discography. After exploring different styles, he returns to that folk sound — spinning tales of Alabama, weaved with didactic biblical lines. Despite the simplicity of the instrumentals, Beam comes through with powerful, tender lyrics, making Beast Epic a stand-out in his discography.
Contact Annalise Kamegawa at [email protected].