Iron & Wine Returns to the Well

Sam Beam explains why he's taken his musical moniker back to its earliest roots.

Sam Beam of Iron & Wine (Photo by Kim Black)

Sam Beam doesn’t write propaganda songs.

The force behind Iron & Wine has never let current events bleed directly into his lyrics, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in there for those who care to look. On his latest record, Beast Epic, the singer-songwriter makes no overt references to the transgender bathroom controversy that took place in his native North Carolina, but listeners seeking his response need only dig a little deeper.

“I feel like anytime you write about people in an honest way, you can find connections to any issue you would like,” Beam says.

He recalls the conversation surrounding his 2007 album, The Shepherd’s Dog, which many interrupted as a reaction to George W. Bush.

“People assumed it was a political record,” he says. “It had nothing to do with politics. It had to do with my reaction to a political atmosphere and growing up into a person who was confused because they thought they knew what their fellow citizens valued, and I realized that I did not understand. It was confusing, and so a lot of the imagery and scenarios in those songs and narratives are darkly surreal. This collection is along the same lines.”

Another record that fans may think back to is 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, Beam’s debut album — which was famously recorded in his home late at night while his child slept, thus resulting in the breathy whispers that have since become his signature.

In the intervening years, Beam has toyed with his formula of acoustic-minded pastoral lullabies. With his sophomore record, 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, he upped the fidelity by moving to a real studio and bringing in a band to record alongside him. 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean saw Beam take a foray into pop, while 2013’s Ghost on Ghost incorporated elements of jazz.

However, it is two recent duet albums Beam recorded with Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses and singer Jesca Hoop, respectively, which he credits for the return to his original sound.

 

“What’s around the corner is always more exciting than the corner that I’m on, unfortunately,” Beam says. “So I spent years chasing that. With those two records, I had to be a cast member. I had to get more comfortable in my own shoes and just sort of enjoy it for what it was instead of trying to reimagine it all the time. I think it had a lot to do with the way this record sounds.”

For an album that comes in at a brisk 36 minutes, one may wonder if Beast Epic truly delivers on the second part of its title.

“I have a short attention span,” Beam says. “I’ve definitely been accused of that, but at the same time, I like having more left to say than having said too much. I definitely think there’s some value to that — just leaving space for the imagination to do the rest.”

To record Beast Epic, he turned to alternative rockers Wilco, whose Chicago Loft studio served as his base of operations. Similar to how his own home became part of the narrative with his first album, Beam says the atmosphere of the Loft found its way into his new record as well.

“It definitely affected the sound,” he confirms, “because you have the physicality of the space and how things are arranged and how comfortable you feel in the place. It’s really cozy.”

That coziness can be felt on songs like “Summer Clouds,” a love ballad stripped of hyperbole, or on “About a Bruise,” where affections are bestowed not on person but rather the charm of the American South itself.

However, while Beam may excel in creating wistful soundscapes that revel in solace and solitude, his own listening habits stretch far beyond the work of predecessors like Nick Drake.

“I listen to everything: noise, classical, jazz,” he says. “I like lots of different types of food. There’s no way you could get me to eat the same meal everyday, so why would I do the same with music?”

Still, Beam reverts back to his truest colors by immediately qualifying this statement.

“You know what I also like, though,” he offers. “Silence.”

He laughs as he realizes the truth of his statement.

“To be honest, I love music today more than I ever have in my life, but I also listen to less of it than I ever have before,” he says. “Silence has become a commodity. I have very short, intense bursts of listening, but also long periods of not listening.“

Iron & Wine, Saturday, Oct. 21, 8:30 p.m. at The Warfield, 982 Market St. $35-$50; thewarfield.com.

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