Iron & Wine
But when that southern anthem rings,
She will buckle to the sound.
When that southern anthem sings,
It will lay her burdens down.
— From "Southern Anthem," The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002)
It could be argued that nowhere in the United States is there a region as musically rich and impactful as the South. Blues, jazz, folk, gospel, bluegrass, and, of course, country music all stem from a part of America that also happens to be the birthplace of Iron & Wine's Sam Beam.
It follows that the music Beam has been making for the past 15 years as Iron & Wine is also born of all these traditions, each finding their way into the varied sonic palettes he has explored on his six studio albums, four EPs, and two collaborations. And at times, the deeper roots of those musical traditions, from Africa to Spain, are even more pronounced. The constant elements of Beam's sound — through his most spare and primitive solo recordings to his most elaborate — are his soothing voice and his lyrical poetry. Even when he is singing Southern Gothic tales, his dark and haunting words sound like a hushed lullaby.
The cinematic quality of Iron & Wine's music can be traced back to Beam's background in visual art. He began his creative life as a visual artist; he focused on painting as a college student (see most of Iron & Wine's album art), evolved to film, and after getting an MFA, Professor Sam Beam earned a living teaching cinematography in Miami, Florida.
He was also starting to write music. Lo-fi home recordings became demos, and eventually came to the attention of Sub Pop Records, who would give Iron & Wine its first record deal, and release the 2002 debut album, The Creek Drank The Cradle. It was, to quote one reviewer for No Depression, "like everything you've ever heard and nothing you've ever heard, all at the same time." Recorded at Beam's home studio, at times you could hear the breaths between words, making the listening experience an intimate first meeting.
Using only guitar, slide guitar, and banjo, hearing Beam's debut was like hearing a spooky, Americana cousin of Nick Drake. From the album opener, "Lion's Mane," which declares, "Love is a tired symphony you hum when you're awake/Love is a crying baby Mama warned you not to shake," to the standout "Southern Anthem" with its powerful lyrics ("Freedom, a thistle that withered dry/Still a baby in your hands/ Frozen, the ground refused to die/And the guitar rose again") — it was apparent that this was an introduction to both a talented musician and a gifted poet.
The next album came just two years later, and marked the beginning of what would be a long and fruitful relationship with producer Brian Deck. 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days was a quantum leap in every way. With a full band of players, a recording studio, and an ace producer, the collection was confirmation that Iron & Wine's debut was only the tip of the iceberg. Retaining some of the acoustic intimacy of the first album yet delivering a fuller sound, Our Endless Numbered Days was a big success. Not only was the album hailed by critics, but Iron & Wine songs began to get placed in film and TV, including "Naked As We Came" and "Sunset Soon Forgotten." Beam was on his way.
Each release after has been a revelation of new sonic landscapes, each one painting Iron & Wine's music with different colors. But like exploring a new country with an old friend, adventure is coupled with comfort.
Iron & Wine released two consecutive EP's in 2005: Woman King and a Calexico collaboration, called In The Reins. Woman King, which thematically focused on female archetypes, brought a new range of sound: distortion, electric guitars, percussion, piano, and violin. In The Reins took the Iron & Wine that fans loved and added the sunsets of the Southwest and the romanticism and rhythms of Mexico. The heavenly fusion of Joey Burns and Sam Beam's voices, on songs like "History of Lovers," were mixed with Joey Convertino's drums and the occasional mariachi vocal.
The thread of Beam's collaboration with Calexico continued on 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, but it was hardly a repeat of In The Reins. Burns and Paul Niehaus of Calexico, along with an incredible group of musicians, helped realize what would be their most progressive, wide-ranging project to date. It was also the most successful. Iron & Wine's organic evolution introduced dusty blues, West African grooves ("Lovesong of the Buzzard," "House By The Sea"), experimental and even dissonant flourishes. There was even the dub of "Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)" which brought Beam's experimentation to a whole new level. The expansive songs play effortlessly side by side with the sparer ones, including standouts "Resurrection Fern" and album closer "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" (which actress Kristen Stewart handpicked for the Twilight soundtrack).
With a new label home of Warner Brothers came 2011's Kiss Each Other Clean, taking Iron & Wine's experimentation even further. Starting with "Walking Far From Home," Beam's vocals were stronger than ever, paired with fuzzed-out guitar, but also on the softer, more melodic end of the spectrum. Rivers run thematically throughout the lyrics, including the '70s AM radio vibes of "Tree By The River." Beam admirers got a first peek at what was yet to come in songs like "Me and Lazarus" and "Big Burned Hand," which featured saxophone and a much more jazz-influenced sound.
Not unlike Joni Mitchell's jazz-influenced phase, which offered some of her most ambitious and important work (Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira), Iron & Wine's fifth effort, 2013's Ghost On Ghost, completed a trilogy in the arc of Beam's catalog. To say Ghost On Ghost is his Hejira wouldn't be far off. He gathered an assemblage of top-notch musicians, including two great jazz percussionists, Brian Blade and Kenny Wollesen, jazz bassist Tony Scherr, and longtime Bob Dylan bassist, Tony Garnier. Returning to the fold was Niehaus and multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger. With this team, gone were the twitchier edges of the last two albums. A smoother, R&B-like ease proliferates the songs, while drumbeats and horns give the tracks momentum, moving from "The Desert Babbler" to "Grace For Saints and Ramblers" to highpoint "Singers and the Endless Song." But Beam doesn't speed past us, he merely carries us along; his voice and reliably poetic lyrics ground every twist and turn.
So, where did Beam go from here? He took a breather, then turned full-circle. It began with a reunion, working with an old friend in a loose, fun collaboration with fellow Southerner Ben Bridwell, frontman of Band of Horses. Sing Into My Mouth, with a title taken from Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)," was released in 2015. It was quickly followed by an album of duets with singer and songwriter Jesca Hoop, Love Letter for Fire, reconnecting Beam with a simpler, more rustic sound, and a moment to just be himself. Fittingly, the album was the first to be released under his own name; in a sense, wiping the slate clean. Their 2016 FUV Live concert at Rockwood Music Hall was a tender delight.
In hindsight, these projects would serve as a perfect reboot for Iron & Wine, setting the scene for what could be Beam's best work yet.
Beast Epic arrived in the peak of the summer of 2017, with the following statement from Beam on his website: "I have been and always will be fascinated by the way time asserts itself on our bodies and our hearts. The Ferris wheel keeps spinning and we're constantly approaching, leaving or returning to something totally unexpected or startlingly familiar. The rite of passage is an image I've returned to often because I feel we're all constantly in some stage of transition. Beast Epic is saturated with this idea but in a different way simply because each time I return to the theme, I've collected new experiences to draw from. Where the older songs painted a picture of youth moving wide-eyed into adulthood's violent pleasures and disappointments, this collection speaks to the beauty and pain of growing up after you've already grown up. For me, that experience has been more generous in its gifts and darker in its tragedies."
Album six is, naturally, a culmination of everything that has come before. It is not a rehashing of the past, and couldn't contain its depth and dimension without the journey Beam's music has taken, and the life he's lived. And since the core essence of his work has remained solidly intact, Beast Epic's transition to a simplified sound feels just as seamless as the growth of the Iron & Wine sound from early home recordings to the most sophisticated and ornate.
Back when Beam was still working in film, he was on a set in middle-of-nowhere, Georgia, and wandered into a gas station that had a bunch of old-timey remedies on the shelf. One was called "Beef, Iron & Wine," and, as he explained it in a 2011 Spin interview: "I recognized that a lot in my writing I'm trying to show both sides of the coin — the sour and sweet. Iron & Wine seemed to fit with that duality."
Looking back on the nearly two decades of work he has produced, FUV can provide another interpretation. Beam's artistry has as strong of an elemental core as something mined from the earth, and with every year, it has developed character, boldness, sweetness, and a refined complexity. It is this intoxicating blend that makes Iron & Wine one of the great musical craftsmen of our time. And this is what makes him, without question, one of our FUV Essentials.
#FUVEssentials: Iron & Wine (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Carmel Holt)