A sophisticated listen full of vivid imagery.
If you were to construct a list of artists who could benefit from paring back their sound a bit, Iron & Wine would hardly crack the Top 200. Sam Beam’s arty folk alter-ego has been gracing us with sublime, painterly little albums since his 2002 breakout The Creek Drank the Cradle. His hyper-literate songs have penetrated the popular consciousness now and then (most memorably when “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” turned up in Twilight), and he experimented with some poppier, bluesier stylings on 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean and 2013’s Ghost on Ghost, but for most of his career, he’s stayed within his well-established lane. An Iron & Wine song doesn’t sound like it could come from anyone else; it’s a graceful walk along the razor-thin line between consistency and complacency. The themes morph, the textures deepen, but at the end of the day, Beam writes bright, understated folk numbers about the state of the world.
It’s a bit of a shock, then, when Beast Epic, his first solo album in four years, registers as a transformation. Only in the quietly forceful opening moments of “Claim Your Ghost” do we realize that we haven’t heard anything quite this bare from Beam in a long time. After the relative bombastics of Ghost on Ghost, Beam put out a number of solid Iron & Wine collaboration records that came and went so quickly they hardly made a dent in his catalogue, which means we haven’t heard a Classic Iron & Wine record in a decade.
He’s learned a lot since then. Beast Epic pulls liberally from the plucks and stomps of The Shepherd’s Dog, his arguable artistic peak, but it also carries the wisdom he gathered from his experiments in the interim. The songs sound lived-in and whole, sometimes opaque but never emotionally inaccessible. It’s not shattering any boundaries but it’s a sophisticated listen full of vivid imagery and some of the most affecting vocal turns of Beam’s career.
There’s something thrilling about Beast Epic’s insistence on the value of classicism. No need to grandpa one’s way into a “They don’t make ’em like they used to!” moment here, but it’s undeniably refreshing to consume new music that isn’t coated in a thick layer of identity assertion or striving to feed some sort of cultural narrative. These are soul-massaging sounds produced by a man who knows what he’s doing, imparting non-didactic wisdom and lifting spirits without veering into triteness. On “Call It Dreaming,” the most immediate of the new songs, Beam proclaims “Every moon and our bodies make shining glass/ Where the time of our lives is all we have,” and we can almost see his capable hands molding department store uplift into disarming poetry.
Beam’s secret is that his music is bought and sold on its songcraft. On top of his music’s frequently-surprising amount of rustic texture (which is particularly noticeable on the lacerating “About a Bruise”), he knows his way around a turn of phrase. On “The Truest Stars We Know,” a typical relationship dispute becomes “Someone has to be the dove when someone is the hawk”; on “Thomas County Law” he laments “There’s nowhere safe to bury all the time I’ve killed.” He can make sadness sound sublime, love sound cold and alien, a simple realization sound borderline majestic. Like the best songwriters, Beam is a pro at mundane poetry, and there’s something blissful about hearing him explore that in the hushed tones of his early output.
By the time Beast Epic strikes its final, melancholic note, where Beam observes “Our winter keeps running us down,” we’ve been reminded how much we miss the quieter Iron & Wine. Kiss Each Other Clean’s wispy dream-pop aside, Beast Epic proves that Beam’s gifts are best saved for wine-soaked evenings by the fire.