The trouble with the title of this series is of course that you don’t learn to love an artist’s work: you fall in love with it. Those that mean the most to you will have been playing at just the right moment, often when your defences are down and you’re at your most vulnerable. A lonely nights walk home from the pub in a light drunken reverie, peering through a train window at a beautiful skyline or just having a moment of clarity while washing the dishes – it’s one of those chance happenings that you can’t anticipate. That may well never happen for you with any of these songs – I present them instead as songs with an atmosphere, lyrical depth or mood worth having around in case they should sneak on in to make a home in your consciousness when you’re not looking.
American pastoral. I’ve been looking for a pithy way of describing Iron & Wine for a while now and that’s what I’ve settled on. There is some strange voodoo to the way Sam Beam’s music can inspire nostalgia in an English boy like me when his songs ae not just about a world an an ocean away but also another time entirely. They may as well take place in Narnia for all the connection I have to them, and yet his songs have carved out a special place in my heart with a unique ability to pull at it’s strings with a well turned phrase.
Sam Beam himself has said he deals in, “loaded themes.” He writes songs that rely heavily on repetition and fixed structure but uses the formula to weave stories with a few, evocative details, wielding religious imagery like a wide paint brush. You’re never far away from some sly use of symbolism in a wedding ring, Jesus or one of his disciples, a soldier’s uniform or an old woman’s rocking chair. If you’re the kind of person who demands their songs be wrought from the kiln of personal experience then this might sound like cheating – but the subtlety in which he wields these ‘loaded themes’ is akin to the delicacy he applies his hushed voice.
Over the years he’s gone through quite the transformation. His last record Ghost on Ghost is the work of a very different man to the one who convinced Sub Pop to put out a collection of his home recordings. The lo-fi 4-track songs that made up The Creek Drank the Cradle were recorded at the home he lived in with his wife and child. Legend has it that delicate picking of the guitar and the banjo and his almost whispered vocals that became his early period trademark were utilised out of necessity – he was playing soft so as to not disturb the family. There’s something in his use of acoustic instrumentation that gives it that rootsy feel – amidst the fingerpicking and the slide you can almost smell cut grass and see washing fluttering the line and children frolicking in the reeds.
I’m a city boy at heart but the power of Iron & Wine is in making me long for the country. His references to the flora and fauna of some imagined American South – the shaded fearns, the briars, the creeks, the ceders, the cicadas – sound simultaneously rustic and exotic to my English ears. It wouldn’t sound quite the same with daffodils and dot leaves, ladybirds and lillys.
His sound has gotten busier over the years – culminating in the often over-wrought AM radio sound of his last two albums. He’s shifted gradually and inexorably away from it’s folk roots and drifted towards an AM radio breed of pop music that doesn’t exist anymore. Like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon he got tired of the folk image, of the country, and became enamored with 80s production and bigger, fuller sound. And like Vernon it led to mixed results. Also his shorthand way of writing seems to have gotten even shorter. But even in his lesser works there’s often a disarming term of phrase that cuts through the ever-present over-dubbed oohs and aahs that have become his latter day calling card. His voice has got stronger, but his words have occasionally failed him.
This month Iron & Wine released the first in an anthology series digging out some of those old home recordings that didn’t make the cut on those early records. It’s amazing how strong they are – Around the Well, his record of b-sides and offcuts, was enlightening in showing how much depth his catalogue of songs really had. To find the mine was still full of gold is remarkable. To celebrate this I’ve been reminding myself how Sam Beam won me over and putting together a 10 track playlist. Check it out below, as well as the track by track summary.
I think this period of Sam Beam’s career is my favourite. Many prefer the warmth and intimacy of the lo-fi recordings that preceded Our Endless Numbered Days but for me he really came into his own as a songwriter here. Perhaps Love and Some Verses would sound better recorded on that old four track, but it sounds sublime to me with the sheen of full studio production. It’s the song I always play to people who haven’t heard him first as it seems the quintessential Iron & Wine song – simple fingerpicked melody, repeated vocal phrasings (“Love is a…/love to…”) giving the song, though it only has two verses, a rigid structure. Beam likes to limit himself with such formulas and express himself within these narrow margins, as if challenging himself to see how much he can wring from so little. Here, for instance, love is, “a dress that you made long to hide your knees.” It’s an image so ripe and elegant – of modest love, unshowy love – that it’s strong enough to build a song on. Which Beam duly does.
A couple of Beam’s recurring themes crop up in Jezebel – firstly the obvious biblical subversion, here presenting the Jezebel figure as a wrongly maligned woman (“she was born to be a woman we could blame”), as well as the use of repetition with each four line stanza asking, “Who’s seen Jezabel?”. There’s a couple of Beam’s hallmark references – to flora with the, “cedars [that] line the road” and to dogs, here, “prowling and hungry”. Musically the Woman King ep was more experimental and rhythm driven than it’s preceding works, but Jezabel is straight forward Iron & Wine: delicate picking, gentle backing vocals (the lilting female, ‘nah nah nahs’ elevate the second half of the song into something sublime) lending a mournful texture for the lead guitar picked solo-of-sorts to drift over. It ends on softly raining piano notes after the final refrain:
“Who’s seen Jezebel?
Will the mountain last as long as I can wait?
Wait like the dawn
How it aches to meet the day”
He likes to personify concepts – seasons or times of the day especially. The thought of the night aching to meet the day again in their endless cycle is like something from ancient myth. The magic is in how he weaves these elements that he uses again and again to continually create moving songs – working within a formula without the formula becoming the substance itself, instead always a means to an end.
The new Iron & Wine era may have been telegraphed on Wolves from The Shepherd’s Dog but it was properly announced by Walking Far From Home. Here Beam dispensed with his trademark guitar altogether – instead utilising synths, piano, drums and layer after layer of vocals. Lyrically it’s a rehash of the “I saw…” section of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall – but Beam’s scattered metaphors and strangely enchanting imagery elevate beyond mere homage or plagiarism. He saw, “a prisoner take a pistol and say, “join me in song.” He saw, “a car crash in the country where the prayers run like weeds along the road.” He saw, “flowers on a hillside and a millionaire pissing on the lawn.” It showcases the almost cynical power of Beam’s language – there’s barely a thread to connect it all, and it may well ultimately be a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. But it’s still strangely evocative and powerful. Here it’s aided and abetted by a new found oomph to his voice, the words delivered with an added force and insistence elevated by the wall of Sam Beam’s that make up the backing vocals.
Let me tell you a story about what I described in that opening paragraph about songs swinging in like sucker haymakers when you least expect it. I was alone in the office I used to work in back in 2012. I’d put The Creek Drank The Cradle on as background music but wasn’t really listening. I was too focused on the phone, waiting on a call – my mother was in theatre having a serious operation. A few months prior we had been in accident and emergency with her being told that she was not going to make it. She had, but was seriously ill. It was a crossroads sort of operation – with no guarantees afterwards if she came out alright. I’d rather not have had to sit in work whilst it was happening but I’d used up as much compassionate and annual leave as I could. I was also wrestling with a decision whether or not to move from Sheffield to Cardiff to be with my girlfriend – I had planned to do so before my mother was taken ill but wasn’t sure I could stomach leaving any longer, whatever the outcome was. I got the call from my father. The news was good. I had one of those weird moments of serendipity that seem almost scripted in hindsight. The moment I put the phone down, as I sat filled with a desperate sort of relief, and I heard the first chorus refrain from Upward Over The Mountain:
“So may the sun rise and bring hope where it once was forgotten
Sons are like birds flying upwards and over the mountain”
I’m grateful I was alone in the office that day. I wept like a child.
Another set of lyrics based on repetition, (say yesterday/say tomorrow/but say today), this time advising someone persuing romance that speaking of just the past or the future to a girl will not do. Speak of today, live in the moment and all that. Say yesterday and she’ll reminisce with you – say tomorrow and she’ll say, “come find me.” Say today. It’s a silly little refrain and smacks a little of putting women on pedestal/hoping for a relationship to save you – but even so that final line, “say today and she might look your way and lead you home” is still hauntingly beautiful in it’s delivery. That may be because I always seem, to find a tear in my eye wherever anyone whisper-sings the word ‘home’ – I might want to talk about that with a therapist some day. The guitar line is possibly my favourite Beam has ever plucked and whilst it’s a brief song, only a smidge over 2 minutes long, it’s one that I can’t resist hitting repeat on a few times whenever I come across it.
Jesus the Mexican Boy (from The Sea & The Rhythm ep)
One of Beam’s more blatant religious allegories (he really does pen a lot for a man who claims to be agnostic), he rather bluntly describes Jesus (the Mexican one) as “hiding behind his holy even temper” at one point here. Hmm. This is one of his old 4 track numbers, coated in a layer of tape hiss, just Beam’s guitar and double tracked vocals. He sings of the titular Mexican Jesus, a friend of the song’s protagonist who he’s kind of a dick to but who always has his back and eventually gives him the blessing to marry his sister after they ran away together. I’m not sure what the message is here – Jesus is nice? – but once again the details of the song lift it from being mawkish and instead make the songs payoff surprisingly poignant.
Another choice from the b-sides and off-cuts collection Around the Well, this one is from the Our Endless Numbered Days sessions, and it shows – the double bass, subtle drums and lightly played piano give it away immediately. It’s such a beautiful sound, I wish there were a million more discarded tracks from this period to discover and live in. Here we have Beam singing the song of a boy chasing a girl, his Rebecca, who is a lot like his stubborn, interfering mother. It’s a tough courtship for the boy – “I once gave to my Rebecca a belated promise ring/then she sold it to the waitress on a train” – but it all turns out ok. It has a neat framing device, starting out on Sunday morning where he and Rebecca sleep in, reminiscing about the old troubles, flashing back through snapshots of their relationship and returning at the end on the Sunday evening. The piano that follows the last chorus just some beautiful icing on a delicious cake. It’s cosy little song with a weary sigh of a main refrain: “They say time may give you more than your poor bones could ever take.” It’s only a little bitter in the sweetness but it’s a potent line. It’s followed by “But I don’t think I could ever love another girl” before things get too maudlin. But that’s the melancholy line I always find myself singing.
The most overtly political song Beam has written so far, even as cloaked in metaphor and allusion as it is. “A big pile of innocent bones still holding up the garden wall,” is as eloquent and pithy a phrase encapsulating the sheltered west’s reliance on the suffering of others to sustain itself as you’re ever likely to hear. Politicians fare worst of all: “The cartoon king has a tattoo of a bleeding heart” is a savage line, even without an obvious single target. It’s one of the few strange calypso/beach folk oddities that peppered this period that really worked – live he transformed all his old songs into this style, leading to two of the worst gigs I’ve ever been to.
Ultimately it’s the lyrics that make this one so compelling – more religious allegories from Beam, this time riffing on Caine and Able, and the closing lines about Christ returning to find us all in a Pinnochio’s Pleasure Island like trap sound awfully like finger pointing piety. But it’s hard to deny Beam at his angriest, pointing his talent for metaphor at the modern world.
An obtuse yet fairly traditional folk tale steeped in sadness, Muddy Hymnal is addressed at someone raging at god for the loss of his wife (or husband – it’s never quite explained) in past tense as if filling them in on lost memories. With the church trashed, the ‘captain’s man’ goes looking for answers and is told something in each verse by in turn a preacher, a choir and the ‘lover’s angel’ (presumably the ghost of their deceased partner). Carried by a weary sounding melody items like from another time altogether; Iron & Wine songs, particularly from the 4 track era, often seem to take place in antiquity, even when they’re not explicitly stated as such. There’s gentle empathy to the song, encapsulated in the final lines describing the moment the grieving party is found sleeping by the recently departed’s grave:
“Your lover’s angel told the captain’s man
It never ends the way we had it planned
And kissed her palm and placed it on your dreaming head.”
In which Sam Beam personifies the seasons amidst snapshots of lost loves and mundane, daily moments of country life. It’s all about the passing of time, the way it slips through our fingers while we’re not looking, while we’re focused on other seemingly more important – of which “There are things that drift away/like our endless numbered days” is one of the most heartrbreakingly perfect descriptions. The song rocks like an elderly woman on her favourite chair – it has a strange, weary acceptance to it – like it’s made peace with mortality and is, in it’s way, content. And yet it ends on the line, “A baby sleeps in all our bones so scared to be alone.” As if to remind us that no one knows all that much of anything in the end. And it’s the area in between, those vague suggestions of meaning and truth that is often the best thing we have to grasp at, in which Beam operates. It’s what puts some people off, and what draws others in – he sings like a narrator, a little distant, a little too all-knowing. But in the stories he writes, the little details so small as to almost slip between the gaps in the chords, he finds some sort of truth. In the lost loves, in biblical figures, in the cedars and the ferns – he grasps at that inscrutable, unknowable answer in the ether. And creates beauty out of the confusion and disappointment that comes with opening your hand and finding it empty.
BONUS (aka non-spotify) TRACKS
16, Maybe Less (w/ Calexico) – (from the In the Reins ep)
This would have been my first choice had it been on Spotify as it’s one of my all-time favourites by any artist. It’s as simple and eloquent a song about lost young love as I’ve ever heard. Has there ever been a more delicate way to phrase the drifting apart of young lovers than, “And though an autumn time lullaby/Sang our newborn love to sleep”? Over a few verses and a couple of choruses it sketches out a whole romantic life of a man – an evening in the woods with a young love, the drifting apart, the eventual settling down and wondering, “what if?” The latter part is described with superb economy of language – in 3 lines it’s all covered:
“I met my wife at a party, when I drank too much
My son is married and tells me we don’t talk enough
Call it predictable, yesterday my dream was of you”
Beam is joined on this ep by Calexico, a band who always seem to do their best work when servicing somewhere elses. He the gentle trum of the guitar, the brushed drums and the mornful whine of the sound like distilled yearning as he reminisces:
“Beyond the ridge to the left, you asked me what I want
Between the trees and cicadas singing around the pond
“I spent an hour with you, should I want anything else?”
At once both sweet, romantic and a non-committal cop-out, It’s a nice way of saying, “I have no idea,” and the whole song captures the years of sadness and longing that followed not giving the answer that should have been given:
The Trapeze Swinger (live) – (studio version originally from the In Good Company motion picture soundtrack)
When asked to do a song for a movie no one is likely to remember it’s a strange choice to record a 10 minute long epic. Maybe he just wanted to use the studios money to do the song justice, but if so his instincts were misguided – the recorded version is fine but is a little too busy to compete with the starkness of the acoustic version he often played live at the time. This is the best to be found online – just Sam, his guitar and his wife singing backing – the simple, trapeze-like swing of the finger picked guitar gathering pace and becoming more insistent as he runs through the oblique tale of a relationship budding, blossoming and withering over a lifetime. It’s one of more confusing works lyrically but full of brilliant little details that tell stories all on their own – the two kids with their piggy bank and maps planning to run away, or laying between fallen trees as ‘rugburned babies.’ Or how ,“it seems so silly that season left the world and then returned and now you’re lit up by the city “– a beautifully crafted description time passing and someone leaving. Or most tragically, “I heard from someone you’re still pretty/they went on to say that the pearly gates has some eloquent graffiti.” I assume that the girl has passed at this point – I haven’t got to grips with it all. What is clear though is that it’s a song ripe with regret – “Please remember me/my misery/and how it cost me all I wanted.” I could copy and paste the whole lyric sheet here – there are so many moments that land like punches to the gut. But none so much as the repeated, desperate pleas of “please remember me..” Each time detailing a scene from their lives and explaining how he wants to be remembered in them. But most important of all, “Please. Remember me.”