We’ve arrived in a new Golden Age for duet albums. In recent years Jessica Lea Mayfield and Seth Avett teamed to cover Elliott Smith’s best works. Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones recently got together and showed off their own writing and singing skills. Not long ago Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones surprised everyone with a Phil and Don Everly tribute that more than impressed. Now Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam joins Jesca Hoop for a collection of sublime works that tops anything either has done alone in recent history.

It’s not so much a departure for either. Beam maintains his rugged but sensitive stance, Hoop sings like some kind of otherworldly vessel for perfection. It’s a perfect blend that makes you wonder why they didn’t collaborate much sooner.

After a 59-second muse invocation titled “Welcome to Feeling,” the duo glides into “One Way to Pray,” which quickly reveals the ease they find in harmonizing and trading lines. Aside from blending their styles, it’s the music that almost seems to have emerged from nowhere: It has tinges of the Old World at times (“The Lamb You Lost”) but is fixed in the contemporary (“Kiss Me Quick”) and isn’t afraid to travel to dark places (“Midas Tongue”) or unapologetically romantic (“Valley Clouds”). It’s neither a return to an imagined past and it’s not a gauzy vision of the future.

Among the tracks that seem like litmus tests for future duos, “Valley Clouds” is the most apparent. There will be many who want to try the number out at open mics and other assorted showcases, but there are few who will be able to sell the delicate emotional qualities of the piece. The lyrics demand that the singer believes in the journey he or she takes through and above the clouds into a world that probably only exists for the pure of heart. That’s a difficult sell, but Beam and Hoop send us headfirst into this dream because they are consummate artists.

Hoop proves this on “Soft Place to Land.” She sounds as delicate and vulnerable as a young Emmylou Harris or maybe Nanci Griffith at her most honest. It’s the kind of melody that rises and falls in the most natural places, that haunts us long after the song, which feels like it was sent by a muse rather than written, has faded.

Beam, for his part, seems relieved not to carry the whole show. While he has yet to make a bad album under the Iron & Wine banner, there have been moments of late when one wished for some counterpoint to his musings. That’s exactly what Hoop lends. He’d probably never be as unapologetically sweet on his own as he is with her on “Every Songbird Says.” And “Chalk It Up to Chi,” which walks a thin, thin line between light and dark, would probably quickly veer into the latter never to return if he were on his own.

More than that, this collection has a purpose. It’s the kind of record that people don’t just fall in love with. It’s the kind of record that people fall in love to. There’s optimism present, but it’s not unbridled. There are questions that raise eyebrows, but the answers don’t make us turn back. It’s refreshing to have a collection of songs so firmly rooted in belief and promise. It’s hard to find artists who can sell us on either and rarer still to find those who can convince us to take on both. Beam and Hoop have exceeded expectations in those regards and, more importantly, they’ve given us something to believe in as well—no matter how precarious that belief may be.
Whether their dreams fall apart or come true, we have them here, together forever.

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