Album review: Iron & Wine’s “Beast Epic”

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Rating: 8/10

“Beast Epic” marks a return from Iron & Wine’s two-album psychedelic-jazz-infused-indie-rock detour. For his sixth full album, Sam Beam has put together a group of songs that are loose, carefree, “serendipitous,” while at the same time tight and robust, with a high-level of musicianship.

Beam makes no attempt to hide his imperfections as he lets his hard-plucked strings ring out and buzz where they will, and that seems to be the point. Lyrically, Beam addresses life in general, as he has done frequently as an older, (perhaps) wiser, father of five.

The album cruises along sweetly, until the frantic screeching violins, cellos, and bright keys that kick-off “Last Night” enter like a twisted cinematic bullet. The ensuing song meanders, Beam’s voice smooth and grand, while the sharp surrounding track creates a contrasting anxious tension that mirrors the refrain.

“It’s our last night to lie in these arms”–the song describes a bittersweet-type parting of lovers, which Beam’s narrator wants to embrace. “Reach deep in each other’s tears/Let them rumble and come/When they come in their long waves.” And the song’s sweet and sharp sounds reflect that.

This is an example of how Iron & Wine has grown as an artist. Beam has experimented with songwriting styles and sonic elements, and left those predilections for change behind, corralling his experimentation into something that nears capital ‘A’ art.

“Call It Dreaming,” the album’s first single, may be the weakest song on the album. That said, it’s incredibly well-written.

“Our Light Miles” is a proper closing track. Lyrically, it begins bleakly, but with Beam’s sweet voice you wouldn’t know it: “What will become of us?/ tall trees blown bare/In the bone white snow/Nothing but night for songs/That old mouth still sucking/warm milk of summer.” Essentially, Beam’s narrator is in a desolate winter, or state of mind, yet in some way, he is sustained by warmer, friendlier memories or places in time. Similarly, it ends with hope, “Cloud comes our way so wide/That over the hill/Must be light miles of promise.”

As with “Last Night,” Beam is not concerned with good and bad, happy and sad, but the confluence of contradicting emotion and feeling a long life gives.

While “Beast Epic” has a simple, stripped down, beautifully easy-listening sound, it’s not without its teeth. And with respect to that stripped down sound–one Beam established with “Creek Drank The Cradle” and “Our Endless Numbered Days,” the album boasts a diverse collection of instrumentation.

The album’s high point is likely “About A Bruise,” which, surrounding the straightforward melody, is a confluence of sounds that seem to cut in and out and move all around the core of the track. Beam slows the uptempo tune organically, as he strums sparingly and sings softly, before kicking things up once again with a collective joy. There’s a kind-of controlled chaos, which borrows from 2013’s jazzy “Ghost On Ghost,” adding an earnest song-on-sleeve feel absent from previous releases.

What makes this album good – other than being simply sonically pleasing – is that the compositions embody the lyrics. Like good art, “Beast Epic” is what it says. Clumsy and free.

 

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