Release Date: Aug 25, 2017
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Generally, when a musician makes a semi-ballyhooed return to a sound that’s synonymous with a degree of early success, it could be seen as returning to what works and rejecting artistic growth. On Beast Epic, Sam Beam’s sixth album recorded as Iron & Wine, he rolls back the years without waving the proverbial white flag. Maybe that is something to do with the fact that in the years since leaving his first home at Sub Pop Records, Beam has been tweaking, experimenting and carefully crafting a bolder, expansive sound. In the past four years alone, Iron & Wine has worked on collaborative records with Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses and a covers album with Jesca Hoop..
The Upshot: Simplicity and ease win the day on Sam Beam’s first solo release in four decades. BY JENNIFER KELLY Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam pares things back to essentials for this sixth full-length, his first solo release in four years. A calm permeates eleven uncluttered, unfussed songs, as Beam carries pretty melodies with a quiet voice through warm, casually right arrangements of guitar, stringed instruments, keyboards, bass and drums. It’s a little sleepy, but picturesque and redolent of the basic stuff of human life, sort of like the southern towns that Beam’s lyrics depict (“Every traffic light is red when it tells the truth/The church bell isn’t kidding when it cries for you,” from “Thomas County Law”)..
With the likes of Our Endless Numbered Days, it was easy to pigeonhole Sam Beam as just another 00s indie rock troubadour - lush tunes, heart-tugging lyrics, possibly a cover version on an indie romcom erring on the wrong side of twee… However, with later releases exploring everything from dub to dream pop, Beam lost both momentum and fans. On his return to Sub Pop and with a "back to basics" tag, is Beast Epic penance for his musical flirtations? Kinda - this is a definite return to Beam's roots. Recorded live with old friends and minimal overdubs, Beast Epic is all effortless acoustic swell, melodies reminiscent of his best-loved work, and lazy Lambchop-like lollop.
D espite having a title that suggests a new thrash metal direction, Sam Beam's sixth album as Iron & Wine essays yet more romantic, Americana-tinged songwriting, and it's cosier than ever. As Beam sings poetically in his goose-down voice, cadences resolve as contentedly as old married couples, even in songs of friction such as Bitter Truth. Call it Dreaming is the most robust thing here, and its emotional clarity - "For all the love you've left behind / you can have mine" - ensures it will soundtrack wedding photo slideshows for all eternity.
Perhaps the North Carolina-based songwriter is keen to highlight the core values - intimacy, quiet contemplation, somewhat insular and deftly coded contemplations that somehow, at their best, accrue a great deal of universal appeal - of Iron & Wine following collaborative albums with Jesca Hoop and Band Of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell. Recorded mainly live at Wilco 's studio The Loft, Beast Epic is hardly a replica of the murky lo-fi mutterings of 2002's debut The Creek Drank the Cradle. There are still rich details to be discovered, but the album's sparse sound and predominantly leisurely pace may seem almost confrontationally introverted after the dense web of choirs and brass and vibrant - if occasionally almost overbearing - pop/rock stylings that populated much of 2011's Kiss Each Other Clean and 2013's Ghost on Ghost.
Ignore the misleading album title; Sam Beam’s decade long exploration of sounds and styles has not taken a shocking turn towards an aggressive hip-hop record nor has he turned for metal for inspiration. In fact, Beast Epic is arguably the complete opposite of this, representing a return to his sonic roots, with a simple, acoustic led folk pop dominating. Symptomatic of this back to basics approach is the return of Iron & Wine to Sub Pop Records, where his recording career was launched in the early 2000s, a time when indie rock embraced its folksy roots.
Between his pop-leaning 2011 hit Kiss Each Other Clean and the full-band fusion of 2013's Ghost on Ghost, Sam Beam has spent the better part of the past decade trying his best to resist the trappings of the self-serious folkie. For his last two releases, he's teamed up with Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses) for a set of unsuspecting covers and recorded a collection of collaborative duets with Jesca Hoop in which the singer-songwriter stripped himself, for the first time in his career, of his Iron & Wine moniker. For a brief moment, he just wanted to be Sam.
Sam Beam’s return to veteran indie label Sub Pop after five years with major label Nonesuch seems significant. When Beam introduced himself as Iron & Wine on the lo-fi-recorded folk pluck-alongs of 2002’s The Creek Drank The Cradle, he proved that all you need to make a great song is a few good chords and a warmly melodic voice. Yet with albums like 2013’s Ghost On Ghost, Beam strayed far from that stripped-down approach by adding strings, ’70s soft-rock production and a lushness that sounded dramatically different, even if the songs at their core were just as warm and nourishing.
Sam Beam has stepped away from the brass. He's once again returned to the Sub Pop of his youth, and surrendered to the embered hues of his storytelling, relying less on an overlay of funk and more on an undercurrent of hushed tête-à-tête. With Beast Epic, Beam enlists the beguiling calm in his manner— he reaches for the cooing restraint of his masterful Our Endless Numbered Days, and polishes it with the draping bougainvillea in his beard, a robust production that's decidedly stripped, at its best moments approaching the finest parts of The Shepherd's Dog.
Apart from a collaboration with Band Of Horses' Ben Bridwell, it's been four years since Iron & Wine's Sam Beam graced the cultural landscape with his delicious voice and lustrous facial hair. This, the project's sixth album, is a return home of sorts with a move back to the Sub Pop label and the sparse acoustic dynamics that characterised those earliest records. Not that this is a collection that looks back.
Following a series of increasingly florid, adventurous albums that have seen Sam Beam deviate from his rustic roots, the music videos for the first two singles from Iron & Wine's Beast Epic present visions of the dusty, nature-attuned troubadour that his music has always suggested. That's to say nothing of the songs themselves, which—steeped in rich acoustic guitar strums and spare, shambling folksiness—are redolent of Iron & Wine's early work. As two of Beast Epic's best cuts, “Call It Dreaming” and “Thomas County Law” certainly exemplify the album's ascetic arrangements and pastoral atmospherics.
Clad in an electric-blue jacket and brown trousers, a blindfolded man with flecks of grey invading his otherwise cocoa-coloured hair and generous beard cradles an acoustic guitar. The cover of Sam Beam.
Avoid the cliché that his early stuff was best. That line of thinking can be true, but as often as not it's a comment on listener experience, and it doesn't necessarily lead to fair consideration. As Iron & Wine, Sam Beam has spread his sounder wider than those first couple releases promised. Not just a front-porch singer-songwriter, Beam showed himself well suited to rock and pop and even his jazz influences.
Sam Beam’s latest album under the Iron & Wine moniker is named after an allegorical narrative featuring animal characters with human characteristics and emotions. Its title, ‘Beast Epic’ brings to mind the literature of Geoffrey Chaucer and George Orwell. The material itself, however, is far less conceptual but despite the red herring of its title, the result is one of his most minimal, tasteful and consistent efforts in a decade. From the hushed opening notes and gentle volume swells of ‘Claim Your Ghost’, it’s clear this marks a return to Beam’s original, rootsy folk sound.