Years to Burn feels like the payoff of a musical social experiment.
It’s hard to imagine what would have happened if Sam Beam of Iron & Wine and Calexico’s Joey Burns never met. In 2005, Beam—fresh off the gorgeous, sundrenched acoustic lullabies of Our Endless Numbered Days but barely past the lo-fi tape hiss of his early days—teamed up with Calexico for In the Reins, a “mini-album” (read: an EP, but fancier) that combined Beam’s songsmanship with the rich desert noir of Calexico. The result was something that, at the time, sounded completely new for both bands. Each emerged changed by the project: Iron & Wine’s sonic scope expanded to allow for the Woman King EP and The Shepherd’s Dog (which featured Calexico frontperson Joey Burns), each more texturally rich than the last, and Burns’ vision of his band gelled and turned them into a “proper band” for Garden Ruin, perhaps the band’s most well-rounded record to date.
Because the growth of each band over the course of the last 14 years is at least the result of their collaboration, their newest collaboration, Years to Burn, manages to sound somehow more natural. Here, their pieces lock together from the start of twangy opener “What Heaven’s Left,” an understated but inviting song that starts out sounding like an especially good b-side from Iron & Wine’s scaled-back Beast Epic, but as it unfurls the horn section begins to grow and take over, somehow avoiding cacophony. Before you know it, you’re lost in “Midnight Sun,” whose lush guitar waves threaten to carry you away, the layers gently building on before subsiding altogether.
This ebb and flow is central to many songs here, but the players here are able to flood your senses with fingerpicked rhythms and hypnotic drums without the trick ever feeling stale. If nothing, it’s impressive that they’re so adept at it. What’s better is that little about the album falls flat; the brief instrumental “Outside El Paso” is the sole weak link, not because it’s bad. But it’s brief and unmusical, more a delivery system for moody atmospherics than an actual song, leaving you wishing it would turn into something before giving way to the reverb-y “Follow the Water”’s subtle organ sounds and horn accents.
The album’s crowning achievement is the addicting triptych “The Bitter Suite,” the perfect coalescence of everything both bands have accomplished since Reins. It begins with moody Spanish sung by Calexico’s trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela, until his voice warps and evaporates. As his voice vanishes, the central third takes over, leaning heavily on the jazz and psych-rock splashes that made Kiss Each Other Clean’s “Rabbit Will Run” such a compelling song and makes you wish they’d do a whole album like that – but treating those elements with a “less is more” mindset is part of why it’s so successful here. Before you know it it’s just Beam and his guitar, his lyrics hazier than ever: “This dead bird wants the wings he can’t recall/ A weak preacher standing with a song to sing,” he sings as the song, once again, begins to grow and assume the form of his sorrow. That the two songs that follow, “Years to Burn” and “In Your Own Time,” are somehow able to hold a candle to this is remarkable, but this team is sharp enough that they manage to get your attention back even without any bells or whistles.
Years to Burn feels like the payoff of a musical social experiment: “What happens if two bands that can learn something meaningful from each other make an album together—and then get back together over a decade later to show us what their original pairing taught them?” The result doesn’t stray far from either act’s paths in recent days, but what they accomplish is so much better for them having gotten to those paths because of each other—their pieces fit together so effortlessly, you’ll wonder if they were made for each other. Let’s just hope their paths converge again and we don’t have to wait another decade for a follow-up.