Please, remember me, happily…
I was once talking to a man in his fifties with several post-graduate degrees, and a young woman in her twenties, just out of high school. I, not being a particularly young man myself anymore, was wondering about the litany of Internet abbreviations I continued to stumble upon in my everyday interactions with the computer. Somewhat stereotypically, the young woman knew every single acronym, while I knew about half of them. The older man admitted that, until recently, he thought `LOL’ stood for `Lots of Luck.’ Whenever he saw it written, he wondered how it fit into the context. I’ve thought about that interaction ever since, not because of the error, or even the inherent humor, but because it actually seems a more elegant phrase. It also seems to me that these kinds of mistakes are going to be a natural progression for those unaware of the current trends. Yet, I was comforted by the idea that one could, rather than gloss over the slang, simply create one’s own translation.
The music of Iron and Wine is quite possibly the only indie label fare to bridge generation gaps. In fact, I have not yet met a single person who says they don’t like Iron and Wine, from the surliest of adolescents to the crustiest of seniors. (Hell, teenaged actress Kristin Stewart picked his “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” to play during the prom scene in the movie, Twilight). Though his music is of a type, it effectively brings together a vast range of admirers. It seems as though, like Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith before him, that the only people who may not be fans of Iron and Wine, are those who have not yet heard his music. I feel awkward writing this, but Iron and Wine is essentially Sam Beam. I feel awkward only because I used to work in a bookstore with someone who used to only identify authors by real names. For instance, he wouldn’t say Mark Twain; he’d say Samuel Clemens. It was obnoxious, but I digress. It’s difficult not to think that Beam’s former studies of art and film heavily inform his work. His lyrics both paint an indelible picture and describe a visual narrative. Various combinations of words set to, depending on the era of the song, either various gentle acoustics or ramshackle blues can alternately ensnare and set one to weeping.
Both versions of Iron and Wine are available on a particularly gorgeous set of songs called Around the Well. Tracks are taken from various points from the last seven years of Beam’s career, including finally gathering together particular tunes that, for some reason or another, had not yet been collected on an Iron and Wine record. Fans of the earlier, hushed acoustic numbers will be enticed by the first disc of songs: 11 tracks rooted in banjoes, twangy guitars and intimately whispered vocals. Whether simply lazing in the summer sun and soaking up the delicate nature of each lo-fi excursion or carefully analyzing each poetic stanza, one is sure to find an embarrassment of riches within disc one. Of course, by now, everyone has most likely heard Beam’s version of the ubiquitous “Such Great Heights.” Few might know that the song was recorded in 2002, the same year as Iron and Wine’s first album release, The Creek Drank the Cradle. Either from its use in Garden State or an M&M’s commercial, it’s reach has touched nearly everyone. And yet, some might be surprised to know that Beam gets the same quiet emotional catharsis out of songs from Stereolab, New Order and the Flaming Lips.
For a time, it seemed as though Iron and Wine’s songs were everywhere, particularly on film soundtracks. The aforementioned Garden State may have been more of a boon to the Shins, but Beam’s songs also found homes in the films In Good Company and an underrated drama called Winter Solstice. “Sunset Soon Forgotten” and “Naked As We Came” seemed to find their way into many films and television shows, but there was one particular, slightly rare Iron and Wine track that stopped me dead in my tracks. I first heard “The Trapeze Swinger” playing over the end credits of In Good Company. The film itself was fairly decent, but not particularly memorable. What burned indelibly into my brain, however, was that song. At the time, if one wanted a copy, he had to purchase the entire soundtrack to the film, while, however decent, would really only be bought for the one song. Two years later, Beam would include the song sandwiched between two previously mentioned tracks on a single, yet in a shorter version. Though “The Trapeze Swinger” is the last track on the second disc of Around the Well, it is the true centerpiece of the collection. In fact, on the vinyl version, “The Trapeze Swinger” is the only track on the third record. The song is nearly ten minutes of gloriousness. On the surface, the song is simply repeated musical phrasing, but the words paint an altogether different picture of memory, regret and hope. As always, Beam’s words are economically elegant, in which he can cause outpourings of emotion with the idea of various phrases written as graffiti in heaven.
For a time, I listened to “The Trapeze Swinger” on repeat until I was a pile of mush. Upon my acquisition of Around the Well, I’ve been falling into the same routine, albeit with a huge bonus. Included tracks, “Belated Promise Ring,” “God Made the Automobile” and “Homeward, These Shoes” were also written for the same soundtrack as “Trapeze” and, while maybe not as powerful, are at least as enjoyable. It’s highly doubtful that even the most stalwart of Iron and Wine fans would have collected all of the songs on Around the Well. Myself, a professed Iron and Wine admirer, I have only amassed about half of them. So, given that, I can still consider Around the Well a completely new set of songs to discover. Somehow, Sam Beam can take the oldest and most familiar instruments, and create new worlds with them. By combining aspects of tradition, storytelling, the raw emotions of innocents and simple yet descriptive narrative, Iron and Wine appeals to every age bracket and temperament. He has created his own new language with already existing mediums. And with that I say, “I’ve moved on; bright red bicycles; right on, fellow lovers; feel the wind, be the wind, and lots of luck.”