Anna Marketti ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
It hasn’t been too long since we’ve heard from Iron & Wine, but this time they’ve come back with a special treat for us. In the spirit of spring cleaning, the saccharine folk group have unearthed some previously recorded yet never released songs, set to be released in a series of albums. Sam Beam has amassed a collection of long lost but not forgotten basement tapes, covers, and that raw emotion that makes Iron & Wine so special. The first release, Archive Series Volume No. 1, is a 16 track compilation of Sam Beam’s finest solo work before the band came together.
The narrative quality of folk music is the very thing that draws me to it- and the very same thing that repels so many others. Laden with thick, uncomfortable words and trailing acoustic guitar riffs, greats like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie have used their fascist killing machines and voices to sing us some of the greatest stories of all time, otherwise left untold. Iron & Wine presents a particularly unique experience, Sam Beam’s husky voice never reaching beyond a forceful pianissimo, each song a winding lullaby, sometimes sanguine and other times bitterly sorrowful. As is characteristic of Iron & Wine, each song is a novella in its own right, focusing on the seemingly cliché themes of life and death, documenting the trivialities of mortality, love, and everything that comes in between.
Our Endless Numbered Days, their 2004 sophomore full length, is a standout example of Beam’s lyrical propensity for spinning yarns. Almost theatrical in its production, each track is a full act in and of itself, pulling the listener through vignettes of lovers, as lethargic and warming as a sunny summer afternoon. The second track and their most popular according to Spotify, “Naked As We Came,” narrates two lovers vowing to die by each other’s side. Archive Series Volume No. 1 is galaxies beyond that.
It’s difficult to picture a younger, perhaps less shaggily-bearded Sam Beam sitting in some sectioned off room in his house, guitar draped across his lap slightly out of tune, penning his very first poetic opus. The inaugural album opens on “Slow Black River,” a love letter in which each word is filled with lead. Almost sinister in its slightly atonal melody, the song creeps along slowly, anxiously plucked guitar ambling not too far behind. And just before you’re brought to your breaking point, shrouded in the opaque cloudiness of emotion that is an Iron & Wine song, “The Wind Is Low” kicks you in your pants, Beam’s voice as delicate as a leaf floating on a breeze. Self-produced, he has only himself to harmonize with, yet does it so masterfully you could almost call him Sam & Garfunkel.
The album carries on in the same fashion, offering twinkling bits of guitar and more elevated vocals every now and then. In fact, it feels like a sort of lullaby, equal parts consistency and variation, and wholly tranquil. To the first time listener, this could come across as boring. And while at times, it is admittedly difficult to pinpoint exactly which Iron & Wine song you’re listening to, the particular sameness is exactly what characterizes them as an accomplished group. You’re forced to pay attention to these songs, as Beam bears his soul in hushed tones. Clocking in as the shortest track on the album, “Sing Song Bird” is a crown jewel, with bouncing, rolling guitar guiding along an astonishing amount of words for such a short song. And that’s exactly what makes Sam Beam such a great songwriter- his ability to craft such an elegant song that’s under two minutes yet doesn’t feel rushed. The track ends in a flourish, leaving the listener feeling like the personification of sunlight.
“Everyone’s Summer Of 95” adds a touch of giddiness and nostalgia, reflecting on the freedom of childhood, and the affable ambiguity that accompanies summertime in our youth. “Halfway To Richmond” is a heartbreaking account of growing up and realizing the world is one size too small for you. “Two Hungry Blackbirds” is the questionable love ballad stretched just short of too thin. All the classic elements that, when added with a touch of sugar, spice, and everything nice, mix together into the perfect, mystifying Iron & Wine record.
One shortcoming is the lack of a no-holds-barred climax, packed full of crescendo and feeling. There’s no “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” (yes, the song that was in Twilight), no song to roll your windows down and shout out to passersby while you drive down the street, no song to tighten in your chest before bursting completely free, barreling recklessly at whatever pace it sets for itself. But perhaps this album is not the place for that.
No, Archive Series Volume No 1. is muted and resistant. It’s Sam Beam marrying humanity to musicality. It’s almost a mascot for everything Iron & Wine stands for. In fact, the album, while just as comforting as a homemade album should be, seems intentional in missing the mark. And so we must wait for the second installment with bated breath. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it, or at least before Sam Beam can write a song about it.