Company and Sub Pop. Artist: Iron & Wine
Release Date: August 25, 2017
Producer: Iron & Wine
Label: Sub Pop
Genres: Blues, Indie pop, Indie Folk
Iron & Wine has come a long way since it burst into the indie folk genre in 2002 with lo-fi critical darling The Creek Drank the Cradle. Sam Beam, the main creative figure behind Iron & Wine, recorded the album in his home with only a few instruments. Over the next decade, Iron & Wine’s sound expanded and grew cleaner and sleeker. Somewhere in the course of that process, though, the project seemed to lose some of the charm that made it so special in the early days.
In Beast Epic, Beam returns to a more folksy, stripped-down sound reminiscent of early favorites like Our Endless Numbered Days and The Shepherd’s Dog.
Still, there’s more going on musically in this album than in most tracks on Beam’s more guitar-dominated albums like The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days. “Last Night,” for example, opens with a frantic flurry of strings that play around the upper and lower registers of the track’s melody throughout its runtime. Even Beast Epic’s simpler tracks are fleshed out with piano, strings, drums, or mandolins.
Overall, this makes Beast Epic one of Iron & Wine’s most accessible albums. It’s not as eccentric as Beam’s most recent efforts and it’s more polished and has more sonic variety than his earliest work. It’s pleasant to listen to, and has a number of standout tracks like “Claim Your Ghost,” “Song in Stone,” and “Call it Dreaming,” which could fit as comfortably on a road trip playlist or as the background music to a party as they do in the context of the full album.
The music alone isn’t what makes Iron & Wine so endearing, though. Hearing Sam Beam sing on Beast Epic feels like reading a Faulkner story. He has a talent for weaving melancholy southern gothic themes in with his simple guitar licks and subtle, beautiful melodies.
Throughout the album, Beam paints a scattered picture of an Alabama town where the way out is blocked by tall, dark, encircling trees and where nobody within “looks away when the sun goes down.” Song by song—piece by piece—Beam reveals a story of love as it takes root in this town, grows, burns brightly, and—at times—gets lost in those trees.
Beam’s songwriting is not at all linear. It bounces between night, day, summer, winter, joy, bitterness, acceptance, pain, and hope. All the while, he enriches the setting and characters in his songs with a long list of images and metaphors that knit the album tightly together.
The verses of Beast Epic are overgrown with weeds, drenched in moonlight, washed in rain, and grounded in stone. Beam’s lyrics are as vivid and earthy as ever, and he delivers them beautifully with some of the best vocal performances of his career.
Beam certainly hasn’t lost his artistic touch over the last fifteen years—Beast Epic is a strong effort and a return to form for Iron & Wine. Longtime fans will likely be satisfied by the substance in the lyrics and the musical callbacks to Beam’s early work, and there’s plenty for first-time listeners to enjoy as well.
Rating: 9 of 10