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“DD Review: Iron & Wine – Beast Epic.”

Score: 6/10

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As any extra-punctilious music peddler knows, Iron & Wine is an act that sort of has to be taken with a grain of salt. They are indeed EXTRA mellow. It is music rendered as an escape from life, probably even more so than Beach House is, or just as much, at least. On the plus side, and despite all this reductive rhetoric from yours truly, Beast Epic is a new collection of spare Americana/folk from Sam Beam and company that isn’t TOO formulaic, and if it were just a little tenser in spots it would more than justify the continuing existence of Paste magazine [1].
The reason is that, of course, along with some proudly plangent little folk-pop nuggets like “Claim Your Ghost” and “Thomas County Law,” Beast Epic is perhaps the best Iron & Wine project to date, from a standpoint of simply production itself. As a Califone fan, I’m going to chime in here, silvery car salesman finger glistening and all, and claim THEM to be the band Sam Beam has been listening to the most since 2015’s Sing into My Mouth, as gentle piano graces strategic parts of the first two tracks as something unexpected and non-primary, and finally Beam has struck upon a sure shot knack for just making moments and resonations LAST, when he nails that acoustic guitar [2].
Another song on this collection which works fairly well is “Call it Dreaming,” a midtempo (which marks an INCREASE in tempo from the median, as any Iron & Wine scholar will note) ode to innocence, and to the END of innocence, all at once. Beam’s seemingly effortless lyricism peppers all over this track in easy flakes, but the chorus coagulates as memorable: “For all the love you lost this time / You can have mine”.
The song is even gentle and major-chord laden, so why isn’t it CHEESY? Everything about this conventional album centerpiece seems to dictate that it should have made it onto some sappy movie soundtrack like The Notebook or Elizabethtown [3]. But to borrow a term from another cheesy movie, Almost Famous [4], “Call it Dreaming” is a “think-piece” [5]. The reason, in short, is that a direct, earnest love song is not typically Sam Beam’s wont, so in tandem with this disorientation is the simultaneous possibility that he’s not actually being earnest at all: the “you have two hearts and I have none” [6] theme is obviously old hat in pop music, but when Beam sings these words, he could just as well ironically be representing all the men who love unguardedly OTHER than himself, as pinpointing one of his own romantic quandaries. He does not DWELL on the themes of the joining — they do not become stale, but almost rather transcendently universal. The result is a song that goes down easy, from a lyrical standpoint (whereas pretty much every Iron & Wine tune goes down easy from a textural standpoint).
As you might have guessed, where Beast Epic falters, it does so by way of similarity to the overall median Iron & Wine call to arms, or call to surrender, as it were. “Bitter Truth” finds his voice taking on a certain adopted EXTRA-sappiness (to accompany the requisite sappiness typically dribbled on any song by this band), and at “Song in Stone,” I just want to shake my head (“Song birds in the morning”… haha, come on… this isn’t a freakin’ Hallmark commercial). But at no point is the production ever a failure and any old fan of the band will be glad to at least check in with the band on Beast Epic, because they still come from a level of sensitivity that stands head and shoulders above many of the rest.
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[1] Sorry, but it just really pi**es me off that Paste has a “vinyl sampler” now, whereas even back in the early 2000s, it was a CD and not a vinyl they packaged with all of the hard copy mags. I mean how the he** do you SAMPLE on a vinyl? And that unwieldy object in the mail! Agh, take it away!
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[2] For the record, my favorite last-note-of-a-song in history by far comes on Califone’s “Burned by the Christians.”
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[3] Sorry, those horrible examples should show how old I am.
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[4] Much respect goes though to Cameron Crowe… he did a great job with this film as well as the book Pearl Jam Twenty.
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[5] The character who is supposed to represent Lester Bangs advises the kid main character to inform his editor, upon the latter’s inquiry, that the story he’s doing on the arrogant rockers he’s touring with is a “think-piece.”
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[6] That exact verbiage is uttered in a Bo Diddley song, if memory serves correctly.

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