The Creek Drank the Cradle
(Sub Pop) 24 September 2002 10 February 2003
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There is no excuse for how long it took me to write this review. I mean it. I’ve listened to this CD hundreds of times since it arrived in my mail slot and I could still never bring myself to sit down and find exactly the right key in which to wet myself over it. I’ll be the first to admit that any talent I might have is definitely centered around the lesser arts of witty cruelty. When I hate a record, I can’t wait to get the keyboard and hack off a few limbs before licking my fangs and feeling like an arbiter of rough justice. But when I just absolutely adore something, I feel embarrassed, the same way I used to get in front of someone piercingly gorgeous: pawing at the floor, feeling inadequate, and just sort of speechless in the face of something bigger than any word snares I might fling.
When I went home this past Christmas, I steeled myself with a handful of CD’s that I hoped would help me to endure winter holiday drear that always seems to lay on top of me like a rude, passed-out frat boy. My friend Carrie and I hid out in garage that had been converted into her mom’s basket shop, taking hits from a bong made from an apple and listened The Creek Drank the Cradle. Out in the middle of rural nowhere, with blizzard winds creakily burying us in, this album couldn’t have been more effortlessly perfect.
Sam Beam’s voice cannot help but evoke Nick Drake in the beautifully somber way that it almost drowns in its own harmony. With a few mid-tempo asides like the boggy voodoo of the bluesy “The Rooster Moans”, Beam keeps this album on sedate slide that is almost fetally withdrawn. The music is sparse, just a man and his guitar, plaintively strumming, a few hand claps here and there, but nothing that might distract from his soft, blurry voice and the Americana haikus of his lyrics. This isn’t quite bluegrass, its not really old timey country, and there’s too much momentum for it to be folk music. Beam manages a hybrid that sounds classic while defying rote nostalgia, like Beth Orton, Ron Sexsmith, or My Morning Jacket.
The Creek Drank the Cradle plays from start to finish without a single throwaway track. “Bird Stealing Bread” is a lullaby ballad about losing a girl; it’s bitterness is hidden in just the slightest of buried thorns: “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”. “Angry Blade” sounds like a dark, back porch bit of Neil Young crooning some witchy Faulkner fable. In fact, it’s impossible to ignore the imprint of the Southern American all over this album which abounds with references to sawgrass, creek beds, Jesus, willow trees, and iced tea. Its regionalism is more metaphorical than provincial, more like the way we imagine the South as some sort of never fully charted space, where madness and beauty have yet to be driven out of the fabric of everyday life.
If a songwriter is going to have a poetic impulse, I prefer the poetics of ordinary life to the footnoted excess and surreality of obscure cowards. Sam Beam has an uncanny feel for making minor details resonate in a way that isn’t cloying or overly personal. In the album’s most heart-rending track, “Upward over the Mountain”, a prisoner’s comforting letter to his mother, he pleads “Mother, remember the night that the dog had her pups in the pantry / Blood on the floor and the fleas on their paws / And you cried ‘till the morning”. It’s basically a plea for a mother to let go, to let her son live with his own consequences and to remember him as something other than a fuck up. It’s not surprising that Beam spends part of his time teaching screenwriting since the narrative tug of his verse has all the power and immediacy of the greatest cinematic tearjerkers. This is all somehow very familiar sorrow and yearning. If it didn’t reveal my own irrelevance, I would just print the lyrics to every track on the album, a gesture that would be its own self-evident recommendation.
Who knows what people will be listening to ten years from now? If you had told me a few years ago that electro-clash would be a new music trend, I would have laughed heartily at the absurdity of resurrecting music that sounds about as soulful as an orchestra of opening and closing Big Mac styrofoam. However, if I could venture into the land of safe prophecy, I would say that 20 years from now, this record will still move people in unnervingly deep ways. Sam Beam is a sterling rarity, a songwriter deftly able to capture all of our accidental, unavoidable, and chosen losses without saying too much or too little.