As we anxiously await the (very important) January 25th release of Iron & Wine‘s fourth official studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean, the time is exactly right to reminisce about a career that’s lasted about a decade and has taken us all sorts of places. There is not a folk musician that’s tweaked and toyed with the genre more successfully in the past decade. Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) came from lowly singer-songwriter beginnings (I’m talking solo recording in his own basement low), to a tour-de-force backed by a 10-piece collage of musicians with an expansive sound that danced dangerously close to being an eclectic form of acoustic lo-fi.
I find that the best place to start is the beginning. Sam Beam, the central member of Iron & Wine, was discovered by Sub Pop and simultaneously climbed aboard during the mass signing of artists (The Shins, The Postal Service, Death Cab, Wolf Parade, Rogue Wave, etc.) that took place a few years after the turn of the millennium. This signing would eventually play a key role in increasing the popularity of the “indie” genre, but that’s neither here nor there. Beam was signed to record a debut album, and record he did. The product: 2002’s The Creek Drank The Cradle, a hauntingly beautiful, raw look at Beam’s talents, full to the brim with dreamy melodies and grainy acoustics. But this article’s not about words, so much as it’s about visual proof. So, without further ado, here’s Iron & Wine performing the forever gorgeous “Upward Over The Mountain” off The Creek Drank The Cradle.
After the success of his debut album (and a wildly popular cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights”), Beam had all the momentum he needed to lead him to his next full-length, 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days. Days was similar to his previous effort, only he had ditched the DIY aesthetic and moved on to one a bit more expansive; one that better captured his sound. The dominating acoustics remained intact, as did the chilling beauty, but this time there was a certain confidence in his voice. However endearing the unrefined sound of Creek may have been, the consistency and clarity of Days was exponentially more accessible, and overall more listen-able. But once again, we’ll let the video tell the story. Iron & Wine performing their anthemic “Naked As We Came” on Carson Daly in 2005:
Next came the biggest stylistic jump of Iron & Wine’s career to date. With the annunciation of a new album critics and fans alike were expecting another acoustic singer-songwriter album. But Iron & Wine had other plans. Out with the sweet, simple guitar riffs and catchy melodies, in with powerful harmonizing backed by dense layers of percussion. And while it did leave one nostalgic for the old days of Beam and his guitar, The Shepherd’s Dog was a new and exciting direction for Iron & Wine that held endless possibilities. A new form of folk; one where experimenting with every instrument you own was not frowned upon. One where the chord-driven “verse, chorus, verse” was no longer king. The simplicity of the recordings were gone, replaced by vast experimentalism used for the better. Consequently, live performances were expanded hugely, going from just a handful of musicians to a full-fledged jam rock ten-piece outfit. Once again, see it to believe. Iron & Wine playing “The Devil Never Sleeps” on David Letterman with a full band behind him:
So, if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past decade of watching Sam Beam grow as a musician, it’s this: expansion is key. Stagnation is not an option. He isn’t the sort of musician who is going to keep releasing the same album until his listeners grow weary of hearing the same tired style. Movement, for better of worse, is what Sam Beam does best, and we’ll only know where Iron & Wine is headed next upon the release of his forthcoming album (or by watching this live sneak preview). But given the successes that his last three efforts ended up being, there’s no question that despite a possible stylistic change, this release will be one worth listening to.