A Fern, Resurrected
On fifteen years of Iron & Wine
words by tom johnson
photograph by james lindsey
Daddy’s ghost behind you, Sleeping dog beside you
You’re a poem of mystery, You’re the prayer inside me
I have a pernicious habit of declaring numerous, varying songs and records as “probably my favourite of all time”. I don’t say such things as deliberate fallacy, more that I get so caught up during recollections of such things that I’m often hit by a heady swell of associated memories that lead me to declaring such things with a frequency that instantly diminishes said statement. The boy who cried Wolf Like Me, so to speak.
Given some time to sit and reflect, however, and I often find myself drawn to the notion that if I was plagued by the decision to only ever listen to one song again it would be ‘The Trapeze Swinger’, Iron & Wine’s nine-minute masterpiece, where striking imagery and the sheer weight and colour and solemn magnificence of life tumbles out from a soft acoustic guitar, four repeated chords, and Sam Beam’s tide-like vocal that pushes and pulls, leads and reclines, with startling sobriety right through to its crushing final paragraph.
I first encountered ‘The Trapeze Swinger’ via a 2005 live bootleg I was completely enamoured with, stumbled upon some time between falling deeply in love with Beam’s music via debut album The Creek Drank The Cradle, and consolidating it with the release of The Shepherd’s Dog; the song, upon reflection, acting as the perfect bridge between those two, vastly different, worlds that Beam created; the dust filled sparsity of the former, the more colourful wonderment of the latter. It seems almost fitting, then, that those two disparate entities align themselves together this month, celebrating their 15th and 10th birthdays, respectively, at the same time as Iron & Wine is basking in the glow of his new album, Beast Epic, a record that has been, correctly and widely, celebrated not just as a return to form but also as high-point alongside the most engrossing music of his quietly startling career.
Though The Creek Drank The Cradle is the record that started it all, it’s never felt like a debut record, perhaps because it seemed so antiquated to begin with, the cracks in the skin, the dust in the voice, so far removed from the wide-eyed exuberance we so often associate with such things.
In fact, it’s difficult to imagine Beam’s music ever not being here, the wistful grittiness of it as pertinent as wind and rain, sky and earth, personal memories and vivid recollections known without quite knowing how.
Recorded as a set of home demos on a four-track recorder, the sketches for these songs were supposed to be passed on to Calexico to add their pronounced rhythm section to, however those initial recordings, creeks and cracks and all, were released instead, as they were. Beam would later release a collaborative EP with the band and while that set remains another highlight in his discography it’s difficult to picture the songs on Cradle sounding any other way than they do; unadorned and sparse, akin to stepping in to the same hard leather boots that made the journey to them, like sitting in a room with Beam while he plays and writes and bends the notes until he finds his way through.
Definitively his most country record, the olde world feel of the LP remains its most fascinating aspect, even now the whole thing feels wildly out of time, like some long lost record that was dug up as an artefact of somewhere forgotten and still. There are moments where it drifts out of this world; ‘Bird Stealing Bread’ is an acute take on a relationship whenever and wherever, while ‘Lion’s Mane’ also focuses on the personal: “Love is a tired symphony you hum when you’re awake. Love is a crying baby Mama warned you not to shake,” Beam sings, on the record’s burned-out opening track.
For the most part, however, Cradle casts its eyes across the broken south of the country Beam calls home, and while such a thing has been epically portrayed numerous times elsewhere, the record acts as a striking snapshot of America’s dust bowl; of bibles burned, of pups dying in the night, of names carved in to chapel wood.
The album’s watermark remains its two-sided centrepiece; ‘Upward Over The Mountain’ and ‘Southern Anthem’ still to this day as poignant and quietly devastating as they were fifteen years ago, the latter an anthem of a place in more than just name, a fascinating meeting of lilting words and wilting guitars, the former a hard-hearted glimpse in to familial life and the strength of the strands that bind us to one another in more than name alone. “Mother don’t worry I’ve got a coat and some friend on the corner. Mother don’t worry she’s got a garden we’re planting together,” Beam sings on a song so softly shattering the force of it will stay with you for years down the line.
The follow-up to Creek would solidify Iron & Wine’s reputation, critically and otherwise, and the Our Endless Numbered Days LP is as much a part of Beam’s story as the records highlighted here, even if it doesn’t stand-out as marker-point in quite the same way that the others do – all of which is to say that a decade on from The Shepherd’s Dog unveiling, it still feels wildly consuming, a timeless leap of faith held strong.
As wonderful as it still sounds, it’s hard not to associate it as the moment that Beam moved away from those aforementioned southern roots and into his more playful and experimental side, which resulted in the somewhat-muddled run of releases that followed The Shepherd’s Dog, which can occasionally makes it difficult to remember just what an immediate impression the album left upon release. Pitching two of his most beautiful acoustic compositions (‘Resurrection Fern’, ‘Flightless Bird/American Mouth’) side-by-side with varying electronic/jazzy/instrumental flourishes that would once have seemed unthinkable on a Sam Beam record, it was a sonic a marvel. Co-produced by Brian Deck, who Beam had first collaborated with on that aforementioned Calexico EP, the record is a sublime meeting of Americana roots and bold pop flaunts that powered the Iron & Wine train all the way to number 24 in the Billboard 200 chart; something else that would previously have seemed absurd.
Even now, with its adventurousness diluted by the rabbit-hole journeying he would go on to release, the likes of ‘Boy With A Coin’, ‘Pagen Angel’, and ‘White Tooth Man’ act as dizzying blows to the senses, that dense, earthy storytelling, so totemic of his work, underpinned by a blitz of musicianship with such skill, appreciation, and vigour that you’re instantly sucked in to its colourful world each and every time; a transition so accomplished it’s as if he was waiting his time all along, like it was always meant to be.
Inspired and informed by varying African highlife recordings, as well as Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones LP, the record is chock full of imagery and suggestion, rather than the straight-up storytelling that would often creep in to his more sparse work. “I like writing in an illustrative, descriptive way,” Beam told Pitchfork upon The Shepherd’s Dog’s release. “I prefer describing rather than explaining. It’s much more interesting for me to discover some meaning that you didn’t know that you could create.”
Nonsensical imagination it might well be, but it seems significant that Beam has released his latest work, Beast Epic, at the same time as these two anniversaries, rudimentary as they are, take shape. Since The Shepherd Dog, Beam has released two studio albums, Kiss Each Other Clean and Ghost On Ghost (as well as a collection of side-projects and collaborations) both of which further explored the sonic landscapes that The Shepherd’s Dog introduced us to, but neither of which quite managed to find the same striking balance as their predecessor, save for the occasional stand-out moment (‘Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me’ remains one of his most staggering compositions, in case you missed it along the way).
Which perhaps adds even further weight to Beast Epic; Beam’s return to the tender folk leanings that so enamoured us with him all those years ago, and one of 2017’s most captivating listens. Wizened by age and the passing of time, Beam sounds more of his time here than those initial recordings, no more a window in to another world but, simply, a man, in this day and age, with a guitar and a whole bunch of stories to tell.
Where many of us had perhaps moved on from the expectation of Beam singing quiet, fragile lullabies about summer clouds resting at night, rain softly kissing faces, all above a gentle backing of plucked strings and aching slide guitar, Beast Epic unravels, beautifully, at its own considered pace, like the boy with a coin returning from town, years down the line, having tasted everything he could and finally finding a peace, of sorts, in the place it all began.
It also feels pertinent that Beast Epic ends on the most ginormous of rhetorical questions: “Cloud comes our way, so white” Beam sings on Our Light Miles, “Over the hill must be light miles of promise. What will become of us?”
It feels pertinent because it highlights the fact that Beam is still questioning the world and our place in it, and it’s always been within this frame that his most lasting work has been created. Casual observers might read of Beast Epic as the return to Iron & Wine’s “acoustic” form and decide that it’s a record of comfort; the adorned traveler returned to rest upon his laurels. Which, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth, the record all the more poignant and stirring for the vulnerability it holds at its heart, as deep and wavering as ever before.
“I have been and always will be fascinated by the way time asserts itself on our bodies and our hearts,” Beam says in the album’s introduction. “The ferris wheel keeps spinning and we’re constantly approaching, leaving or returning to something totally unexpected or startlingly familiar. The rite of passage is an image I’ve returned to often because I feel we’re all constantly in some stage of transition.” While he undoubtedly meant this a broader reflection of life, one expects he knew it was also a nod to his own career arc, given the arc of his career and where Beast Epic fits in to it.
“Where the older songs painted a picture of youth moving wide-eyed into adulthood’s violent pleasures and disappointments,” he continues, more directly referencing his own work. “This collection speaks to the beauty and pain of growing up after you’ve already grown up. For me, that experience has been more generous in its gifts and darker in its tragedies.”
As such, Beast Epic feels like exactly that. An epic in name and nature, it’s a real-life story book of Sam Beam’s adventures but one that also acts a forceful reminder to all of us, of the things that we live through that become our own tales, some we live and die by, others that we mean to leave behind, even though we know we never really can. Had it been the record that followed The Creek Drank The Cradle it might have furthered Iron & Wine’s reputation as a rising folk star, but one expects that it would have left quite the same gut-churning rumination that it does given the heavy wealth of time that has passed between.
And ain’t that always the way.
“Please remember me,” the protagonist solemnly begs, time and time again, in all variety of ways, on the aforementioned ‘The Trapeze Swinger’, and, as far as Iron & Wine are concerned, there will be plenty of time for remembrance; perhaps what Beast Epic does so formidably, however, is prove that we’re not even close to that point just yet.
It’s a record which illustrates, beautifully, that Sam Beam is still very much alive and living in this slightly faded world he’s built himself within – and so we are too. Whether you find yourself celebrating his work fifteen years on from that, ten years on from the moment it all began to blossom, or in the epic here and now, it pays to remember that love can last a lifetime – in Alabama or elsewhere – and so we carry on listening, over and over and over again.
‘Beast Epic’ is out now, via Sub Pop. You can buy it here
Iron & Wine tours from October, find the full set of dates here