Much pomp and circumstance has been made about Sam Beam returning in 2017 to the form of his early years. But while Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic, out today on Sub Pop Records, is certainly a stripped-down affair compared to some of Beam’s Warner Bros. catalog, it is still a highly polished outing, with Beam’s trademark, hushed multi-tracked vocals high in the mix alongside all sorts of well-placed figures and accoutrements – backing piano, subtle percussion, weeping strings, occasional plumbs of bass. The acoustic guitar is not lost on us but this Epic is far from Appalachia. And all the better for it! Beam has recorded a tremendous record here with the new LP and, if anything, has further solidified his rightful place as a kind of modern-day Cat Stevens or Nick Drake.
Anyone expecting the nuanced Americana of Beam’s early work will smile broadly at tracks like opener “Claim Your Ghost,” which starts with him carefully counting off time, unfurls with jangly acoustic guitar, and, in its most emotionally devastating moment, cuts out everything but Beam’s voice as he intones, “The garden grows into our street / We’re holding the blossoms up high.” “The Truest Stars We Know,” all piano and finger-picked acoustics, is so fragile, it feels like it’ll evaporate before it reaches your ear.
But this not all shadows and whispers. On “About A Bruise,” Beam accompanies a sometimes-jagged, sometimes-bouncy palm-muted guitar line with shuffling percussion and excellent accents from an almost-jazzy piano. “Summer Clouds” starts with that familiar guitar line but, after a simple 1-2 drum march from a kit, pedal steel enters the frame and Beam goes right for the heart with a bridge that’s arguably the best moment on the whole record:
By the end we hold something too high to ever come back down
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
By the end we give someone too much to ever close the hand
On “Our Light Miles,” an album closer that leaves you hungering for more, Beam frequently soars into falsetto, displaying some of his finest singing to date with lyrics like “What will become of us? / Tall trees blown bare / in the bone white snow / Nothing but night for songs / that old mouth still sucking / warm milk of summer.” Impressive stuff, indeed.
All in all, it’s a fine outing and one worthy of the canon Beam’s been building for himself all these years. If you’ve been waiting for Iron & Wine to keep delivering on the promise of records like The Creek Drank The Cradle, this is your moment.