Upon my discovery of Iron & Wine in 2007, they quickly became my favourite band – but I didn’t realise that ten years on, I would still consider them the epitome of musical magnificence.
Since the release of their first album in 2002 (the five years where I didn’t know of them are considered wasted years), Iron & Wine have exceeded in crafting gentle, folksy ballads that are as soothing to the soul as one could hope. They have showcased, through their impeccable musical abilities, exactly what makes music so extraordinary.
The creation of Beast Epic has also signified Sam Beam’s return to Sub Pop Records – a label that invested in Beam’s earliest work, and would become the helm at which his direction for indie/folk music would be considered a significant defining point. This return has undoubtedly added some familiarity to an album that appears to be, at its core, cyclical, and painfully aware of the threat of transience and its own fleeting existence. And while we cannot stop the wheels of time, Beast Epic is powerful in that it chooses its own narrative:
The beauty and perfection of Our Endless Numbered Days (one of my all-time favourite albums) perfectly encompasses Iron & Wine – steeped in sentiment, Beam’s warm voice brings life to stand-out tracks like Love and Some Verses, Each Coming Night, and Passing Afternoon. Since then, the band have ventured through soft pastures and made them their own. While the creation of The Shepherd’s Dog was a deviation from the breathy sweetness that listeners were accustomed to, it was welcome for its fuller sounds and chirpier disposition (and the characteristic placidity of Iron & Wine was preserved in the album’s closing track, Flightless Bird, American Mouth).
With Beam’s sixth album, Beast Epic, we see his vehemence as artist, and what is an observational work of art that has shifted thematically from earlier works. While there are various thoughts that echo throughout this album, its core themes reflect on adulthood, the evolution of love and the inevitable uncertainty that accompanies human existence – all neatly compiled into 11 incredible tracks.
With Beam quietly counting us into the album, there is anticipation (the band), there is weepy excitement (me) and then, suddenly, a burst of light (a beam of light, dare I say) – as Claim Your Ghost opens with Beam’s classically wavering voice singing, “Our winter keeps running us down / We wake up with love hanging on / Killers let go, killers let go.” It is gentle, and immediately familiar, and everything what we know and love about Iron & Wine. This familiarity is welcome when all else is so unsure; and it is heartening to see Beam step confidently back into his role of pensive and thoughtful artist.
Bitter Truth is treated to sweet harmonies and the cheeky closing line of, “Some call it talking blues / Some call it bitter truth / Some call it getting even in a song.” Followed by this is Song in Stone, introducing the use of keys, persistent guitar-plucking, and a quiet, rising violin.
The slow, contemplative Summer Clouds is backed by steady percussion and the distant sounds of the piano, but what stands out is Beam’s vocals, as he sings one of the most aching lyrics in the album: “By the end, there’s a song we will sing meant for someone else / By the end, we leave somewhere too long to ever wander back.”
The swooping and vibrant Call It Dreaming is undoubtedly one of the best and most beautiful tracks on Beast Epic. Pulled together with Beam’s rich vocals and the liberal use of piano, cello and percussion, the track is a courageous high point in the album. Call It Dreaming is bright and incredibly sincere, soaked in nostalgia as its lyrics focus on a carefree past and the selflessness of true love: “For all the love you’ve left behind / You can have mine.”
Right For Sky is dominated by Beam’s rising and falling vocals, musing about what could have been: “If I could choose, I would do things right / Teach my dreams to look me in the eye / Sing my heart out into my hands / Shine where light demands.” Beam’s voice soars over the penultimate track, The Truest Stars We Know, a tender ballad soaked in guitar and piano, and while distinctly reminiscent of Iron & Wine’s older songs, it generates its own warmth.
The closing track, Our Light Miles, is quiet and contemplative, Beam’s husky vocals urged on by minimal involvement of the guitar, piano and cello. Beam concludes the song – and the album – with the appropriately uncertain and pondering lyric: “What will become of us?”
Reflective albums – especially those that consider the passage of time – can often adopt a tone of regret (one of the worst things you might feel at the end of your life). But Beast Epic rises above. It resists the urge to succumb to cynicism; rather, when you reach its end, you are overwhelmed by how beautiful and impactful it has been (what we hope to feel at the end of life). It embraces the flaws and inconsistencies that are expected of life, but it wholeheartedly celebrates the triumphs of it, too. With Beast Epic, Beam has created something endearing and remarkable that embodies the courage and beauty of our individual journeys in life.
The best albums are those that come to you at a time where you need it the most – and for me, this has been Beast Epic. It has been my road map toward healing. It is a toast to life itself. And while I can’t verbalise just how much it means to me; my overwhelming sentiment is best defined by Beam’s own words:
“You raised your glass, and the scars fell off my heart.”
01. Claim Your Ghost
02. Thomas County Law
03. Bitter Truth
04. Song in Stone
05. Summer Clouds
06. Call It Dreaming
07. About A Bruise
08. Last Night
09. Right for Sky
10. The Truest Stars We Know
11. Our Lights Miles