He may not realize it, but Sam Beam could easily make a successful career for himself releasing only EPs. Iron & Wine’s 2003 EP, The Sea and the Rhythm was a compilation of five of the most stunning songs of his catalogue, while his recent Passing Afternoon single had a pair of fantastic b-sides worthy of being held up beside any of his album tracks. And now, just a few months later, Beam is back with Woman King, consisting of six more songs that are, unsurprisingly, absolutely breathtaking. I would do best to spare myself from re-stating the obvious, but what the hell. I’ll humor you.
As with each new Iron & Wine release, Woman King‘s production is even crisper than that of its predecessor, with the added benefit of beefed up instrumentation. His trademark, rustic acoustic guitar is still at the center of every song, but is backed up by a larger assortment of other instruments, like the atmospheric sounds in “Jezebel,” the bass, drums, banjo and violin in “Gray Stables,” or the heavy distorted bass and scratchy hand percussion of the title track. The real surprise lies in the distorted guitar in closer “Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song).” I bet you never thought you’d hear that in an I&W album. Though some may find this studio-polished version of Iron & Wine a bit jarring, it’s the beginning of an interesting path that sees Iron & Wine surpassing the bearded-dude-with-a-guitar-phase into one of sounding like the work of a full-time band.
Ever the haunting Southern poet, Beam lives up to his lyrical promise yet again, his words heartfelt and clever, rich in imagery and rhythmically sublime. “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven,” which I was lucky enough to hear live on Beam’s last tour, is American music of the most Gothic variety. Beam sings in a bluesy style, bringing to mind past hoedowns like “Teeth in the Grass” and “Free Until They Cut Me Down.” The song reads like a Faulkner story, with Beam singing lines like “Mary/Carry my name/hoof marks hacked up all I had to offer you/Looked all/over the place/lost your portrait lately when the wind blew.” And then there’s the title track, whose lyrics read more like a nursery rhyme than anything else:
“black horse fly, lemonade
jar on the red ant hill
garden worm, cigarette
ash on the window sill”
I suppose this isn’t any surprise to anyone that Sam Beam has written and recorded yet another outstanding record. And though his full-length records are never anything short of brilliant, it seems as if he’s able to concentrate many of his best songs into these three-to-six song EPs. One of these every six months and I’d be a happy man. As it is, his output seems even more productive than that, so as it turns out, I’m even luckier than I think. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that everything Iron & Wine puts out is awesome, but just in case you had any doubts, Beam has outdone himself yet again.
Bonnie `Prince’ Billy – I See a Darkness
Califone – Quicksand/Cradlesnakes
Bright Eyes – There is No Beginning to the Story