With the conflict in Iraq dominating every media outlet, it feels like there is no escape from the unjust atrocities that are being perpetrated on our political future. Often when there is a cultural mood of pessimism, when people despair of hope, nostalgia is a common recourse, as people retreat into a safer past. How fitting then that the best solace from the magnitude of this conflict comes in a certain nostalgia not for Clinton’s prosperous 1990s but from the 1890s?
24 Mar 2003: Bottom of the Hill San Francisco
It’s incredible to think Iron & Wine’s songs were recorded by one person in his bedroom. Everything about them sounds more akin to a compilation of old folk tunes found on dusty old 78s, discovered when clearing out a recently deceased elderly relative’s estate. They sound as if they would be sung by families sitting on the porch; an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation, recounting gothic tales of lives along the murky bayou. On the excellent debut album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, Sam Beam accompanies his tender hushed vocals with the sparsest of arrangements: acoustic guitar, sometimes a second guitar, occasional backing vocals and the odd flurry of banjo.
Beam tours his bedroom output as a five piece, capitalizing on these extra flourishes by adding pedal steel, slide guitar, drums, occasional bass, a second guitarist and a female backing vocalist. The result is nothing short of astounding: the songs become fleshed out, injected with a life that feels contemporary rather than remembered. The songs are less like fragile, brittle treasures and more robust. They sound more alive rather than serving as mere old-fashioned curios. This is not to belittle the album; The Creek Drank the Cradle is a heartbreaking record of gorgeous simplicity. But tonight the songs sound even more emotionally expressive than they do on record.
If Iron & Wine’s music is nostalgic for a bygone era, then its lyrics evoke nostalgia for bygone people and relationships. Beam’s range as a songwriter is shown by a reliance not just on ex-lovers to show changing interpersonal dynamics, but also on stories of mother and child, father and son. Even the whole family gets a look in on new song “Prison on Rt. 41”, where the narrator laments for his jailed family. This song is the closest Beam comes tonight to Will Oldham, a contemporary to whom Beam will inevitably be compared. Like Oldham and so many other indie artists, Beam presents his solo music under a collective banner. But unlike Oldham, Beam displays an openness, an unabashed emotional honesty. The songs are not dressed up in gothic for stark but contrived effect; instead the setting presents a tableau uncluttered by modernity, which allows the universal themes and emotions of the songs to resonate. The very act of arranging the songs as ancient folk tales makes them timeless.
The inherent simplicity, of presenting emotion in a pure and straightforward manner, makes comparisons with Nick Drake far more fitting. Indeed, Beam’s final song of the evening, another new song, features a lolloping rhythm similar to Drake’s catchiest, most tuneful work. While the songs played from The Creek Drank the Cradle are uniformly excellent, it is Beam’s newer material that begins to show his range and depth, illustrating that he is not to be considered a one-off curio. The new songs show Beam and co. to be expanding their musical scope. “Take Me Home” features a traditional literary trope—the obligatory cautionary tale—but musically it veers off from folky trappings and explodes in an intense burst of rhythm, utilizing two drummers. “Red Dust” is transformed from a brief two minute acoustic fragment into a full on psychedelic epic. A long instrumental passage builds and builds out of the final verse. The steadily increasing tempo showcases the band’s tightness. Clearly, the collaboration with other musicians is helping Beam to push his musical abilities, and indicates a promising evolution for Iron & Wine.
One of the night’s many highlights is the achingly pretty “Bird Stealing Bread”. Beam uses the recurring eponymous image to represent different stages in a failed relationship, from an idyllic day before things sour; to the folly of a lover’s betrayal (“Do his hands in your hair feel a lot like a thing you believe in / Or a bit like a bird stealing bread out from under your nose”); and finally to the lover having realized her mistake. The emotional power of the song’s brilliant literary construction is perfectly augmented by a xylophone playing the lead melody instead of an acoustic guitar. It sounds simply lovely. The main set ends with—what else—“Muddy Hymnal”, the last song on the album and a perfect finale. The song is a lullaby to the final moments of childhood innocence, Iron & Wine providing the perfect tonic to these troubling times, yearning for a time when everything felt truthful and honest, because that was all we knew. That the music of Iron & Wine can evoke this in the listener—despite the emotional baggage of years of experience, and despite an inescapably distressing political climate—is a significant accomplishment that should not go unsung.