Iron & Wine, Beast Epic

Iron & Wine, <i>Beast Epic</i>

I wasn’t sure how much I’d like Beast Epic, the new album by Iron & Wine, aka Sam Beam. I knew he’d softened a bit since the early days, gotten less gritty, less dark in general — and hey, I can’t fault him for that. You can only be dark and moody for so long before it starts to eat away at you, y’know?

So I understood that Beast Epic wasn’t going to be an album’s worth of “Free Until They Cut Me Down,” and I’d accepted it. I just wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy it. I half-expected to be bored out of my mind, listening to just another lackluster bunch of indie-folk tunes with no real meat to ’em.

As I listened, though, I realized that while Iron & Wine has indeed changed, it’s not the kind of change I’d expected…and it’s actually a pretty good thing. See, Beam’s looked further back in the folk-music timeline for inspiration this time around, and the result is an album that feels somewhat out of time. Beast Epic is gentle and delicate and playful in a way few modern-day folksingers are, pointing instead back to the days of vintage Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, and — probably most of all — Nick Drake.

“Thomas County Law,” for one, begins with what sure sounds like an homage to Drake’s “Pink Moon,” with its percussive, bassy melody and quiet drums; I can damn near hear Drake singing along over the music. Granted, there’s less of a rural-England feel here, replaced by a rural-Georgia(?) feel that’s both similar and different, rolling along beautifully into a hazy, fondly-remembered Southern night.

“Call It Dreaming” is similar, warm and hopeful and quietly-building, like a Nick Drake song if he were raised on the other side of the ocean. There’s also a little bit of James Taylor lurking in there, to boot, and maybe even John Denver’s quieter moments. It’s gorgeous and sweet, heartfelt and cheerfully rambling the way all the best country-folk songs ever made are.

By contrast, “About a Bruise” is a very different beast, playful and messy and reminiscent of Cat Stevens; it’s nicely unpolished, with an occasional misstep, a random note that’s not quite perfect, maybe bent just a bit the wrong way, in a humanly imperfect way. “Last Night,” too, is sly-smiling and quirky, throwing in a whole bunch of oddball sounds just to see what happens and not caring who happens to be listening.

Fans of the older Iron & Wine will likely be lured in by the slow, elegaic “Claim Your Ghost,” with its starkly-strummed guitar, waltz-y rhythm, and skittering, jazzy drums, and I’ve got to admit that while I do like the other stuff, it’s probably my favorite track here. Things switch up quickly with “Thomas County Law” and then “Bitter Truth,” which is packed full of a ’70s-tinged jaunty grin that hides a whole mountain of regret.

That throwback feeling shambles and jangles its way throughout Beast Epic, from the drifting country-folk of “Song in Stone,” which is awesomely Byrds-y at points, to the somber “Summer Clouds,” with its intriguingly rubbery bassline, to the childhood reminiscences of the bluegrass-y “Right for Sky,” to the nimble folk of “The Truest Stars We Know” (which makes me think of Paul Simon more than anything), to sweeping, swooning closer “Our Light Miles”.

And as it meanders through the speakers, I find myself looking backwards, too — not to Our Endless Numbered Days-era Iron & Wine, but to the music of my childhood, back when my parents controlled the radio and forced us to listen to whatever they wanted to listen to.

It seemed terrible back then, but now its warm and comforting, like an old blanket some great-aunt wove for me back when I was a kid. I’ve no clue if that was what Sam Beam was aiming for with Beast Epic, but regardless, it makes me smile and feel like I’ve come back home again.

(Feature photo by Kim Black.)

(Sub Pop Records -- 2013 4th Ave., 3rd Floor, Seattle, WA. 98121;; Iron & Wine --; Iron & Wine (Facebook) --; Iron & Wine (Twitter) --; Iron & Wine (YouTube) --; Iron & Wine (Instagram) --
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Review by . Review posted Friday, November 3rd, 2017. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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