Despite the fact that Sam Beam’s music has changed over time, we still tend to see Iron & Wine first and foremost as a solo acoustic project. Just Beam and his guitar, that’s it. And yes, we first met Beam on his hushed debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle. And of course there’s the cover of “Such Great Heights.” But though Beam’s early work is great, the truth is his best music has been made with backing bands. The Woman King EP and (especially) The Shepherd’s Dog comprise Iron & Wine’s best work. Even Kiss Each Other Clean, which has a few forced experiments in it, has some great moments.
But as Iron & Wine expanded its sound, Beam also seemed to run out of places to take it to. His last Iron & Wine record, Ghost on Ghost, genre-hopped and experimented but never quite held together. So, on first listen, Beast Epic, Beam’s new album, might feel like a retreat. He’s come back to Sub Pop, and though this is a full-band affair, the songs are mostly stripped down and centered around acoustic guitar. It’s not quite that simple, though. Beast Epic actually draws a clear line back to Ghost on Ghost in one way: both albums shift the focus on Beam from soft-spoken songwriter to full-throated performer and singer. He’s a capital-F Frontman on this new record, and his voice has never been clearer or higher in the mix. Where Beast Epic succeeds is that the music here offers a far better backdrop for Beam’s singing than Ghost on Ghost did.
The performances on the record are charmingly open, recorded live in studio with few overdubs. Opener “Claim Your Ghost” is all echo and space. You can feel the room around Beam’s voice and the hard strum and pluck of his guitar. “Thomas County Law” rumbles a bit more, but like the first track lets Beam’s percussive playing ripple out, and the band’s restraint behind him — a careful fill here, spare percussion there — lets these songs cast longer shadows under curious lyrics like “every traffic light is red when it tells the truth.” The band tends towards playing taut and lean, though it can also loosen up the tracks, adding a playful jangle to “Right for Sky” or a dusty buzz to “About a Bruise.”
Some of the best moments offer new turns on Beam’s ability to pull the most out of quiet. “Summer Clouds” is one song that drops the guitar in the mix, preferring warm piano keys and lap steel to melt over the track, offering a fresh twist on the sepia tones that have always coated Iron & Wine’s music. And closer “Our Light Miles” seems to nod most directly to early Iron & Wine. Beam drops his voice to a near whisper, and some reverb both hints at and refines the hiss of his singing on early recordings. It’s a perfect ending here, highlighting the best parts of this record and circling back around to Beam’s start as a musician.
That circling to the beginning feels like a long-standing part of Iron & Wine — Beam’s songs are so often rooted in the discoveries and losses of youth — but here they come from a different perspective. When he sings, on “Summer Clouds,” that “we hold something too high to ever come back down,” he may be singing about very youth he’s sung about before. There’s a new perspective, a new set of lessons learned here. Instead of songs about the lessons the young will learn, Beast Epic is an album about how time twists the uncertainty of youth into some sort of incomplete wisdom. Aging is its own mystery here, but Beam’s songs now look back at youth not with wide-eyed nostalgia, but rather with a weathered squint.
The album marks the return of that sharpness of perspective in Beam’s songwriting. However, there are moments where the music — though the band plays together well — threatens to tip from spare into stale. It never quite gets there, but the clattering orchestration of Woman King and the strange squalls of The Shepherd’s Dog always felt intentional, focused. Some songs here, especially “Song in Stone” and “The Truest Star We Know,” don’t feel like full-band songs. The additions of players around Beam don’t add much to the song, and Beam’s singing on its own can carry the day. There are also a couple of moments where Beam’s voice, clear and sweet as it is, masks a chorus that never quite gets there. But mostly this is a rewarding new record from Sam Beam, and the best spotlight for his singing Iron & Wine has released.