Review by Laura Cooper.
Sam Beam has been performing under the name Iron & Wine since he released his home-recorded album The Creek That Drank The Cradle in 2002. Sounding like the raw recordings of rural musicians captured by Alan Lomax in the 1930s and 40s, this collection of low-fi folk songs is compelling in its gentle way. Beam developed this style further with the more polished Our Endless Numbered Days in 2004, drawing comparisons to Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. His next three albums brought a change in direction, adding in more bells-and-whistles production and influences from soul, dub and electronica. Whereas these albums drew their strength from their variety, his new album Beast Epic, lives and dies on the strength of its melodies and lyrics. Beast Epic is largely a return to the sensibilities of Beam’s debut, though with far better production (by Beam himself) and vocals as light as mousse and as warm as a crackling campfire.
Much of Beam’s previous work has shown its Southern roots, playing with the Southern Gothic tradition of strange goings on in small towns. This surfaces in Beast Epic, particularly on “Thomas County Law”. A lulling concoction of guitar, banjo, violin and more mixes together into a tightly controlled track with a sinister side, ending on the refrain “nobody looks away when the sun goes down”. The video fits the Gothic atmosphere, where Beam is a rural clergyman carefully preparing for his own funeral in an empty church.
The other single released from the album is quite different. Whilst it has a certain sun-kissed breeziness, “Call It Dreaming” ultimately tends towards the cheesily sentimental. It is the sort of song used for sunset first kisses on the roof in teen dramas. Where there is poetry in the images and turns of phrase on the rest of the album, the lyrics tend to fall flat here, such as the mawkish “where the time of our lives is all we have”.
However, the rest of the album does not disappoint. The vocals are extraordinary, the multi-tracked vocals gives the intimate impression of a voice behind a voice. The lyrics are complex and evocative. The track “Bitter Truth” is about the ugliness of the end of a relationship and the whip-smart chorus is a meta reflection on plumbing the private life for inspiration; “Some call it talking blues/ Some call it bitter truth/Some call it getting even in a song”. Similarly, “About a Bruise”, more interesting lyrically and musically, with the plucking banjo and guitar, includes the wonderfully acidic line: “Tenderness to you is only talk about a bruise”. The album’s symbology is complex and largely effective, though on “Right for Night”, “Her gentle milk was happy just to flow/ Know that her tomcats took their licks in turn” is a too crude for my taste.
Beast Epic shows Beam returning to his roots, but not forgetting the tricks he has picked up over the years. The smooth production, the exquisite vocals and the sparse but effective instrumental palette comes together to give the album the feel of snuggling deep into an audio blanket.