In appreciation: Iron & Wine

It’s Friday, time for a little music appreciation…

The whole idea of a “favorite band” is kind of silly. I like far too many styles of music to have one, although if forced I could probably narrow it down to two. But my deep admiration and enjoyment of Iron & Wine has gone on long enough, so it’s time to push that number to three.

Iron & Wine is actually one guy named Sam Beam (joined occasionally by his sister on harmony vocals) so it makes pronouns challenging. I think what I find so impressive is how he’s able to craft songs that have a consistency of emotion, but wrapped in always changing production styles. His career is still fairly new, and I get the sense that he’s in the middle of something that will eventually be considered extraordinary.

There are only three Iron & Wine albums, plus a handful of EPs. The first album The Creek Drank The Cradle was produced and recorded solely by Sam. The style was very distinct: acoustic instruments such as guitars, banjos and slide, and a very close-miked whispering vocal. It was a lo-fi affair, with an intimate quality. But at the same time, there was something deep and spooky going on in the lyrics and mood.

Here’s one of my favorite songs, “Faded From the Winter”:

And “Southern Anthem,” with a video directed by Sam:

For his next album — Our Endless Numbered Days — Sam boosted the production quality for a cleaner sound, but the overall feeling remained. Below is a great live version of “Naked As We Came.” I love the lyrics in this song. To me it’s almost like a promise to your partner that you’re in it til the very end. It’s a sweet song, but there’s a dark undercurrent to it all. (I’ve actually embedded this before, but what the hell…)

The third Iron & Wine album is the one that made his fans a little restless. He had previously teamed up with Mexican-influenced rock band Calexico, but that wasn’t a proper Iron & Wine album. But for The Shepherd’s Dog he used some of the same players. The sound of this album was so radically different in production that many wondered what had gone wrong. When I first heard it I couldn’t get into it. I thought it was interesting, but the production was so heavy handed that it seemed to drown out the intimate qualities that made his music so distinct.

But I gave it some time, let it sink in, and it’s now on equal footing to his other two. What used to feel overproduced now has a sort of dreamlike quality. I’m never quite sure what he’s singing about half the time, but I know there are deep stories being told. It sounds like a soundtrack to a hallucinogenic road trip movie. Here’s “White Tooth Man”:

And then, this most impressive little song, so seemingly out of character… a song that doesn’t seem to have a chorus and yet it’s catchy as hell:

What’s interesting about The Shepherd’s Dog is that it feels as if these are still Iron & Wine songs, just as they always were, but they’ve found a new home. Rather than an even and muted sepia tone, these songs were painted in bold strokes of vivid color. It’s a perfect match for what he’s been doing all along — singing strange stories about those hidden aspects of our personal little worlds. His songs are like brief moments of clarity: a situation or a feeling, told in abstract lines of thought that no one else could possibly understand. At the same time, they ask huge questions: How do we feel, how should we love, what god should we accept, how will we die.

Clearly I appreciate his music, but to really be considered a favorite, it’s got to hit somewhere deeper. This is where words fail me. All I know is that I listen to I&W far too much, and I keep thinking that I’m going to wear it into the ground if I do. But it never happens. Whenever I listen to it, my external world changes and becomes cinematic. I’m entirely within my own mind, recalling memories that I’ve never actually had. That’s powerful stuff.

Now, if only he’d do a show in Seoul, or better yet Busan…

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