There exists a set course of birth, growth, death and rebirth that guides the stylistic and conceptual arc of many a folk artist’s career, almost as if a musical mirror image of the themes of ageing, seasonal changes and the natural life cycles of Earth’s living beings that so commonly permeate the poetry of folk music’s troubadours. The trajectory of countless folk musicians’ careers will witness a humble start of stripped-back, meditative ballads, often between just the singer and their sole instrument of choice, whilst later releases will expand upon this style, before eventually reaching an artistic culmination of the expanse of this sound, after which they will return to the rustic roots of their earliest and most subdued stylings. Examples of this are abundant in both the past and the present in the world of folk music, with the brief discography of Nick Drake being a perfect example, as well as an almost jarring one, given just how rapid his evolution was between records. With Drake’s debut album, Five Leaves Left, being a fresh, romantic and starry-eyed take on the British folk jazz of the late 1960s, his sophomore release, Bryter Layter, was the electrified and evolved next step in his career, whilst his third and final album, Pink Moon, which rid his sound of any and all luxuries, was the withering away of the grandeur of his artistry up until that point. Although Pink Moon marked Nick Drake’s death in both an artistic and literal sense, the four songs that resurfaced following his untimely passing were somewhat less muted in tone to the music of his final record, almost as if the never-to-have-been fourth album from the legendary singer-songwriter would have heralded his rebirth as an artist. Unequivocally, however, Nick Drake acts as an especially extreme example of this trend, given just how pronounced the tone shifts between each of his three records are, whereas, for many other folk musicians, this cycle can be a lot more gradual, with the stylistic change of pace represented by the latest album from Iron & Wine, Beast Epic, being a prime specimen in this regard.
Both in terms of the musical and lyrical content across Beast Epic, it would seem that Sam Beam, who has been recording under his Iron & Wine alias for around 15 years now, is knowingly approaching the death stage of his artistic cycle. On the surface, with Beam having stripped the album’s instrumental palette of many of the most magnificent and indulgent elements of his more recent material, such as the uplifting group vocals, the bright horn sections and the overall orchestral backdrop, whilst also opting for a largely live studio recording with very few overdubs, Beast Epic certainly sounds like a return to the singer-songwriter’s roots, and this is fortified by the lyrical topics that concern Beam throughout the tracklisting. Central to the conceptual arc of this newest Iron & Wine project is the pleasure and pain of ageing, with Beam stating, in his own words, that, “[w]here the older songs painted a picture of youth moving wide-eyed into adulthood’s violent pleasures and disappointments, this collection speaks to the beauty and pain of growing up after you’ve already grown up”, whilst claiming that his experience with having grown old as opposed to growing old being “more generous in its gifts and darker in its tragedies.” Given that the concepts of ageing and the passing of time are integral to the entire philosophy of Beast Epic, the comparatively more austere and rugged timbre of the record is unquestionably intended to parallel this, with Beam even employing a less indulgent attitude when it comes to his songwriting across the album. Whilst the instrumental and lyrical tones of Beast Epic both bolster Beam’s purpose across the album, however, the more muted compositional approach is less effective in striking a balance between being both effective in reinforcing the record’s concept and standing strongly on its own merits. Beast Epic is certainly a pleasing listen, both in terms of the compelling performances from Sam Beam and his band, as well as the overall sound of the record, which nevertheless retains a striking semblance of dynamism amidst its more stripped-back stylings, but with particular points across the album being held back by somewhat underwhelming songwriting, the project, as a whole, can struggle to break past the point of simply being pleasing and into territory that fully engages the listener in the artist’s aged world. Ultimately, although Iron & Wine’s honeyed, indie folk sound is undeniably sweet on the ears across Beast Epic, occasional shortfalls in the compositional substance of the album prevent it from being the arresting exploration of both the joy and grief that comes with the fate of ageing that it could have been.
With Beast Epic being so stripped down, it should go without saying that it’s the points in the tracklisting wherein Sam Beam proves that he can do more with less that truly stand out as projecting the images of withering gardens and wayward ghosts evoked by his wistful poetry into the listener’s mind. Case in point, the sparse acoustic guitars, bass and fiddle that linger as they stagger between each chord change at the beginning of the album’s opening track, Claim Your Ghost, dither and creak with each sway as if guided by the metronomic movement of a rocking chair, which is reinforced by the steady, ever-so-gentle pattering of the inconspicuous percussion. If anything, the poetic power of this opening passage lies more in the striking space left between each chord, as the various instruments occasionally twiddle with their strings as if in nervous anticipation, than in the actual music itself, although that’s not to downplay the importance of Beam’s charming harmonies. Indeed, whilst referring to the vocal melodies of such a slow and sombre march as ‘catchy’ may not convey quite the right message, at least not in terms of the fractured and muted tone of the song, there is certainly a sticky quality to Beam’s singing. This seems to be largely as a result of the repetition of the phrase “killers let go” at the end of each quatrain during the verses, with the way in which the folkster’s sharp, twangy harmonies of the prior two lines tumble back down into the warm cushioning of his lower register marking the same cascade in the chord progression. Likewise, with Beam’s vocals patiently drifting above the eerie, discordant tones that are struck during the chorus, the listener is offered a stark and chilling reminder of the song’s ghostly subject matter. With Claim Your Ghost reaching what feels like a ravishing climax during its final breaths — courtesy simply of the stringed instruments plucking at some incidental melodies and the percussion devolving into some looser rhythms — Beam proves himself highly capable of making the most of the stripped back aesthetic of Beast Epic by just its first song, and this is something that continues across the most successful cuts in the tracklisting. The rustic atmosphere of Thomas County Law, like that of Claim Your Ghost, is made so endearing by the feelings that Beam allows the listener to extract from the residual tinkering of the instrumentation that strings together each chord change like the patchwork displayed on the album artwork. Thomas County Law, however, flows with a more traditional structure, as opposed to the linear building of tension in the timbre of the opening song, but reaches a similarly satisfying acme during the bridge, wherein Beam’s vocals finally lift off the ground and start to soar, almost as if representative of the desires of the “birds without wings” mentioned in his lyrics. Undoubtedly, across Beast Epic, for the most part, the record’s strength lies in its subtlety, but that’s not to say that some of the songs that are more upfront in their appeal are any weaker as a result. Whether it be the bright, upbeat melodies that permeate the joyful jig of About a Bruise, the plucky improvisation of the disjointed folk jazz jam of Last Night or the vibrant and occasionally haunting tintinnabulation of Right for Sky, the songs across Beast Epic that are less sparing, at least compared to the vast space left amidst tracks like Claim Your Ghost and Thomas County Law, nevertheless capture an enchanting simplicity, even if they go that extra distance in terms of their melodic tones and skittish rhythms.
Despite much of Beast Epic thriving off its sparseness and subtlety, there are nonetheless a handful of moments wherein the album’s subdued tone can be taken to the point of certain songs lacking in the songwriting substance that the strongest cuts in the tracklisting succeed in displaying, regardless of how straggly or scant they may seem as a result of the drawn-out space that they leave between chords or phrases. Summer Clouds, for instance, arguably tests the listener more so than any other song on the album, both in terms of just how quiet the instrumentation is and how minimal the song progression is. Yet, for all that it demands of the audience in its understated nature, the piece offers little in terms of the striking melodic delivery that would fittingly reward the listener for their investment in the song’s subtlety, with even Beam’s performance being noticeably less engaging than at most other points across the record. In a rather different fashion, the closing cut from the album, Our Light Miles, seems similar on the surface to the opening song, in that it loosely strings together long-lasting notes and chords that offer a cocoon of vague, jangling ambiance to support Beam’s wispy vocal delivery. However, whilst in the case of a song such as Claim Your Ghost, the devil was very much in the detail, Our Light Miles is not so open in offering subtleties in its songwriting that justify its somewhat scraggy composition, in that its progression seems to run rather stagnant, whereas the album’s opening song was always changing and growing in charmingly delicate ways. Even a cut like The Truest Stars We Know, which may very well be direct with its melodic tones, especially in terms of Beam’s strong vocal performance, is not carried as well as it could have been by its structure, especially as a result of the extended passage of inconspicuous piano tinkering underneath the fingerpicked guitar chords, which holds the middle section of the song together somewhat tenuously. Thankfully, however, the cuts in the tracklisting that are successfully sparse and subtle most definitely outweigh those that miss the mark in retaining a sense of compositional purpose and direction in this regard, but then again, with Beast Epic clocking in at just under 36 minutes, the mere existence of even a single of these songs can undoubtedly have a significant bearing on the fluency of the record as a whole.
Consistently, the most successful songs across Beast Epic capture and convey a warmth in their breeziness, whilst their stripped back structures do not see Sam Beam lay up on the strong melodic tones, the songwriting nuances or the inviting, pastoral performances. In this sense, Beast Epic marks a triumphant return to Iron & Wine’s roots, almost as if encapsulating Beam’s artistic death and rebirth in one stroke, with the record’s most earnest and solemn moments reflecting the lyrical themes of ageing, whilst the more upbeat and exuberant developments later in the tracklisting seem to breathe a new life into the musician’s stylings. With the thematic underpinnings of Beast Epic being so undeniably thorough and vivid, it’s certainly a shame that the album, as a whole, is undercut by a few moments wherein the compositional capacity on display doesn’t quite fill out the space left by many of these scarcely arranged songs, to the point that certain cuts can become blurred in their structure and come across more as some vague, folksy pleasantries, as opposed to being integral to the fluidity and conceptual arc of the album. Outside of this, however, the insight into age and its effects on the human body and mind provided in the very musical and stylistic fabric of Beast Epic makes for some expressive and measured meditations on the passing of time, with Beam finding both beauty and ugliness in the nature of his artistic and physical ageing.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10