Album Review: Iron & Wine – Beast Epic (Sub Pop)

Time traveller

Sam Beam’s music is very much about the journey rather than the destination, but his journeys are over time rather than space. On his first album in four years he returns to themes that will be familiar to listeners of early classics like the beatific Our Endless Numbered Days. Since then he has had a stab at wider popularity and dalliances with major labels, but having got that out of his system Beam is returning to what he does best, exploring and expressing the universal experience of time passing.

Beam’s style is largely relaxed, many of the tracks on Beast Epic are arranged for mostly acoustic instruments played in a quiet fashion. This makes for a rich tonal tapestry that glides effortlessly by without distracting the listener too much, but listen a little closer and you will hear a swathe of small details that sparkle and shimmer. Beam’s is no longer the introspective voice and guitar of old, it’s an oft harmonised voice with a broad selection of instruments; Joe Adamik brings autoharp, clarinet, drums, kalimba, marimba and percussion while Jim Becker plays banjo, guitar, mandolin and violin. Rob Burger also contributes autoharp alongside clavinet, Hammond B3, Mellotron, organ, piano, synthesizer, vibraphone, violin and Wurlitzer. You’d have to be listening hard to pick all of these out, but it’s not hard to imagine how their presence makes for an appealing smorgasborg of sound.

The production is mellow, it could almost be analogue and the album is available with extra tracks on vinyl, but I suspect that its origins are digital. Beast Epic was recorded at Wilco’s studio in Chicago, the Loft, where the band played live with minimal overdubs, a factor that undoubtedly contributes to the coherence of the playing and ultimately the appeal of the songs.

The first few songs of the album have a mellifluous vibe that blends them together almost seamlessly, it’s the lyrics that catch your ear, Claim Your Ghost has the refrain “Killers let go” while Thomas County Law delivers the inspired “there’s nowhere to bury all the time I’ve killed”. Despite stating that “I could whine about it all but I won’t” the following song finds Beam backtracking with “we were strongest till I let you drag me down”, it seems old habits die hard. There are also some pretty upbeat numbers to enjoy, About a Bruise has a superb percussive intro with lots of plucked instruments creating a pizzicato effect that unfolds over the track. The Truest Stars We Know is an analogue bubblebath of a tune in the style of Beck at his mellow best. Call It Dreaming makes the most of that Hammond organ in a higher energy song with some lovely acoustic guitar noodling.

This is a far more confident and happy Sam Beam than we heard when he first made the scene, now he can express himself without self pity and give his songs an integrity and honesty that makes you want to hear more. I suspect that having got to forty in one piece he realises that life isn’t so bad after all.

– Jason Kennedy

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