Clad in an electric-blue jacket and brown trousers, a blindfolded man with flecks of grey invading his otherwise cocoa-coloured hair and generous beard cradles an acoustic guitar. The cover of Sam Beam’s sixth studio album under the moniker Iron & Wine is a fine piece of embroidery that chimes with the immaculately executed folk rock he has been purveying since the early 2000s.
Turn the album over, however, and an altogether more distressed image meets your eye – the mess that lies behind the needlework, all loose threads, disharmony and confusion.
Whether it is Beam’s intention or not, the aptness of the above as a possible metaphor for the human condition as the fortysomething songwriter perceives it is hard to resist. After all, Beam is on record as saying Beast Epic continues his fascination with time, and in contrast to the youthful inquiries of his early releases the new record – following an arc that began around 10 years ago with The Shepherd’s Dog – is a distinctly adult affair, both in theme and in execution. We are outwardly civilised, he might be saying, but remove the mask and we are frayed and fragile.
There’s every chance, though, that Beam simply likes to see himself represented in needlework, just as he acknowledges he chose the title of the album because it sounded good. The case for such a view is only strengthened by the absence of anything related to the beast epic narrative genre within Beam’s sparkling lyrics, which, as per each and every previous Iron & Wine release, seem to come to him as easily – almost too easily – as sleep does to a cat.
If the jury’s out on the depth of meaning behind the title and the artwork, what, then, of the 11 songs that make up Beast Epic?
The album is unlikely to win Beam new followers, a conclusion that has less to do with the standard of songwriting than the lack of creative development. If anything, Beast Epic represents the first retrogressive step in Beam’s 15-year career in music, the likes of Song In Stone and About A Bruise shying away from the vigorous soul and jazz flavours of Beast Epic’s immediate predecessors Ghost On Ghost and Kiss Each Other Clean. Instead they cleave to the more intimate, less embellished palette of Iron & Wine’s debut The Creek Drank The Cradle and its follow-up Our Endless Numbered Days, albeit with a settled line-up of additional musicians fleshing out Beam’s creations.
But despite seemingly reverting to the methods that first brought him attention and making no effort whatsoever to pretend it’s anything other than 1974, with Beast Epic Beam has delivered a suite of songs that is equal to anything he’s done before. There’s a consistency that won’t surprise long-term fans, though they might be disappointed by the lack of a standout song to rival Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me (from Kiss Each Other Clean), the Woman King EP’s Evening On The Ground (Lilith’s Song) or Burn That Broken Bed from In The Reins, Beam’s 2005 collaboration with Calexico.
This record is snug, unthreatening and comforting, which means anyone looking for rage and catharsis ought to give it a wide berth. But for many of those preoccupied by the kind of concerns that trouble Sam Beam – chiefly thoughts of mortality and fallibility – Beast Epic will be a long, warm, healing embrace.
Watch the video for Call It Dreaming from Beast Epic below:
This article was originally published by The Quietus.