If there’s any one man who can claim responsibility for the indie folk rock boom of the 21st century, it’s Sam Beam. When he tapped into an intimacy that acoustic singer-songwriters had drifted away from with 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, Beam (under the moniker of Iron & Wine) inspired countless imitators. After a few critical successes, a couple of experimental deviations, and two full-length collaborations, Iron & Wine has returned to Sub Pop, reaching back into his Southern gothic pastoral roots for the sound he crafted during his tenure with the record label. The result varies in its success, with some tracks seemingly tailored for the backing track of a granola bar commercial.
Upon first listen, Beast Epic is certainly akin to the first few Iron & Wine albums, but anyone who skims just beneath the surface will realize that it never finds the confidence to stand alongside those early records. Even when Sam Beam tries to flirt with darker themes, chipper, jangly guitar notes keep these songs from ever finding their intended somber tone. Even lyrically, the album is filled with lines that initially sound poetic but crumble at the first sign of scrutiny. “Thomas County Line” gives us the eye-rolling zinger “Every traffic light is red when it tells the truth.”
One shimmering stream of musical prowess on the album is “Summer Clouds,” which holds its own against any song Iron & Wine has put out since leaving Sub Pop. Feeling like a sister piece for “Swans and the Swimming,” the song builds on the sort of vulnerable haunting refrain that fostered attention for the folk singer in the first place. It is a lovely exercise in introspection that benefits from the live instrumentation so heavily boasted on the recording of this album. Most of the song is told through whispers, until Beam bares it all in the heartbreaking bridge: “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.”
It would be interesting to hear the stripped down acoustic demos of these songs. Some of Beast Epic’s tracks – the most egregious offender being the album’s lead single, “Call It Dreaming” – have been overproduced to the point of sounding like department store pop music. Even when the traces of a familiar enchantment can be heard, they are quickly smothered by twee piano riffs, as is the case with “Bitter Truth,” a song that offers a compelling glimpse into the past before falling flat under the weight of its own cutesy affectations
Beast Epic is rarely offensive; it’s mostly filled with pleasant but forgettable songs, like “The Truest Stars We Know” and “Right for Sky.” These tracks aren’t doing anything new, nor do they do much to recapture the allure of the past. Somewhere along the line, Sam Beam has inadvertently surrendered the indie folk rock crown to his own disciples, like Father John Misty and Bon Iver. The genre kept moving forward, while Iron & Wine is unsuccessfully trying to relive the glory days.
Did I just get older, or did Sam Beam? These tunes don’t have the same potency that his earlier work once did. If any of Beast Epic’s songs were found on Our Endless Numbered Days or The Shepherd’s Dog, we would call them filler tracks, but in light of Sam Beam’s recent diversions, they gain some sort of magic that they never truly earn. Despite its obvious shortcomings, though, this album is certainly a step in the right direction. Perhaps we will get another great Iron & Wine album somewhere down the road, but it isn’t this one.