Sam Beam, better known as Iron & Wine, has been on quite a journey since he started releasing music in 2002. His first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, was made on a four-track recorder at Beam's home. The warm intimacy of Beam's hushed voice and acoustic guitar, combined with the lo-fi production, had critics everywhere speaking of it in hallowed tones.
On Friday, Beam is releasing Beast Epic, his sixth full-length album as Iron & Wine. The years between have also seen numerous EPs, live albums, B-side compendiums, and collaborations. But in many ways, Beam is back where he started.
Not only has Beam returned to Sub Pop, which released his first album (and several more), but he has also come back to the older production style of recording live with minimal overdubbing. And whereas Iron & Wine's fifth album, 2013's Ghost on Ghost, featured jazz and R&B influences, Beast Epic returns to the relaxed acoustic sound of Beam's earlier work.
But perhaps the most striking return is the one to Beam's favorite narrative themes. Beast Epic explores time, aging, and experience — themes that have long captivated Beam. "I was interested in time and mostly how it was going to play out," Beam tells The Week. "Like a young person looking into the future, into the fog basically, 'What's going to happen?' Also being obsessed with my personal love life and writing about those kind of things, but also the fear of the future, trying to understand my history, the places I grew up."
The beauty of Beam's preoccupation with time is that listeners get to hear how maturity and experience affect perspective. Reflecting on the benefits of aging, Beam says, "I feel like the thermometer has gone down a little bit. Things aren't quite so crazy all the time. Because when you're young, everything's a disaster or everything's a crisis. There's something always exciting, too. So it seems like the dangers and the heartbreaks, the enthusiasm, the excitement, are longer and slower, they're not quite as bright and bouncy as before, but they're more intense."
Beam's more easygoing attitude shows in his recording and production choices for Beast Epic. He recalls that his early records were just himself doing take after take, and then the albums became bigger studio affairs with so much overdubbing that none of it was live. Beam grew weary of that and moved to larger band arrangements, which took much longer to record and still required overdubbing. Beast Epic was much simpler, and Beam also found more magic in the process: "We would do like two or three songs a day and then we'd be done. It was just more improvised, the songs are more open and simple but they also approach an improvisational kind of way, where people make melodic choices, supporting musical choices, and that's what we go with. We may do a few things here and there, sonic pixie dust to make it fun, but pretty much what we have is what we did that day and it's all live. I think there's a lot of things I like about other people's recordings, a lot of magical things, serendipitous things that you can't really reproduce that are created that way."
Beast Epic is also a return for Beam in that his last two full-length releases were collaborations. In 2015, he released Sing Into My Mouth with Ben Bridwell, and 2016 brought Love Letter for Fire with Jesca Hoop. "The one with Ben, we grew up together and it was such a nostalgic and fun project because that's how we first started to do music. Just sitting around and laughing and playing other people's songs. The record with Jesca, I had never really written songs with someone before. I had played music with a lot of people, collaborated musically. But I never had collaborated writing words together," Beam says before praising Hoop's sense of humor and melodic style. He still isn't sure how these projects affected the music he's making now. "As far as what I brought back to Iron & Wine, I don't know. You go off and you try to experience different things and bring them back to your life and you're not always sure how they play themselves out until they do but maybe in hindsight I'll know how those played out."
Given Beam's obsession with the passage of time, it will certainly be exciting for future Beam to have that anticipated moment of realization. And who will Sam Beam be in the future? He reckons his fate is the same as everyone's, "still looking through the future with your arms out, blind, hoping that your experience will prepare you for something that it inevitably won't."