For those needing an introduction, Iron and Wine is the stage name for singer/songwriter Sam Beam. His first album was released in 2002, so he’s been around a while.
My introduction to Iron and Wine was many years ago when my son played me his cover of “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service. This had an unfortunate and negative effect on any future encounters, as I felt his version stripped the song of most everything that I liked about it.
It’s taken me a decade to get over it, but here I am listening to and writing about Iron and Wine’s latest, Beast Epic, released just days ago on August 25, 2017.
Musically, the album is quiet and peaceful; and in that regard, bears a lot in common with his contemporary, Bon Iver. The difference between the two is in how they avoid the pitfall that plagues songs of such tranquil overtones: failing to call enough attention to itself to get repeated plays. While Bon Iver interjects creative musical add-ons to embellish his tunes, Iron and Wine keeps it acoustic, relying on the tried and true method of a really good melody to keep you coming back.
The songs on Beast Epic are far more easy to digest for the Baby Boomer than those on Bon Iver’s latest album (22, A Million). The absence of electronic adornments allows the fifty-something year-old ear to focus on the music without distraction or filter. The acoustic sound feels right at home. Though short on energy, these tunes are simple and enjoyable.
But if tempted to call this “easy listening,” take a look at the lyrics – which, again, are similar in style to that of Bon Iver. In my review of 22, A Million, I mentioned that an occasional phrase seemed wise and profound, and the rest was just puzzling. The songs on Beast Epic are similarly ambiguous. It makes me feel like I’m missing out on something and I find it frustrating.
But more so for Iron and Wine than with Bon Iver. With the latter, the edginess of the music seems to lend itself to such disquieting. But Iron and Wine’s more traditional style seems more at home with Stephen Foster-type lyrics.
An example. Here are the first two lines of the chorus of “Right for Sky” from Beast Epic:
When I lose my feet in my father’s shoes
When I take your flesh with my false tooth
Line 1: Great imagery. Who doesn’t have a childhood memory of slipping on your Mom or Dad’s shoes and dreaming of growing into them someday. Not to mention all the analogies can be drawn from such an image.
Line 2: What?!
There are numerous other head-scratching lines throughout.
Yet there seems to be a discernible spirit that runs through the album. It come across when you let the songs come to you as a whole rather reading with a magnifying glass in one hand and a scalpel in the other. And that spirit is this: Life is seldom what it should be, seldom what we would like it to be, and it’ll be alright.
Despite containing the phrase “Jesus and his trophy wives,” the most straightforward song on the album is “The Truest Stars We Know, ” and it illustrates my point.
Someone gets to be the river, someone is the sea
Someone gets to be the fire, someone is the leaves
And someone’s walking in the morning light and calling to it cold
Everybody moves beneath the truest stars they know
Ten years after listening to his breathy, whispered version of The Postal Service’s lively “Such Great Heights,” I finally sat down and listened to an Iron and Wine album from beginning to end. Pleased to report that the experience was a pleasant surprise. If you’re in the mood for something quiet and relaxing, Beast Epic will do nicely. If you’re in the mood to dig through mystifying lyrics in search of a meaning, even better.
- Iron and Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights” was actually released before the Postal Service’s version.
- It was also featured in an M&M’s commercial (bad quality)…
- He actually did record a Stephen Foster song…
- Interesting fact that has nothing to do with Iron and Wine: A Spotify search on “Hard Times Come Again No More” returns more than 250 results.
Here’s Beast Epic on Spotify