Calexico and Iron & Wine make for a perfect collaboration. Their songwriting skills and musical interests overlap enough for smooth assembly but not so much that working together provides diminishing returns of creativity. Since the fit is so obvious, of course, they’ve already done it, way back in 2005 for the In the Reins EP. If it feels like they’ve continued since then, that’s because it’s somewhat true, as they’ve swapped guest appearances here and there without making a proper collaboration. Now after all this time, they’ve come back with Years to Burn, a proper album follow-up (short as it is) that catches all of them in a new era of their career, but still equally suited for partnership.
Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, despite – or maybe because of – his early history as a solo artist, often sounds particularly recharged in collaboration, as when he got together with Jesca Hoop in 2016 for Love Letter for Fire. Something about group work (unlike anyone in a high school class) inspires him to new levels, twisting his smart lyrics into new shapes while being prodded into new sonic places. Calexico, too, never hoard their gifts, either for playing or discovering new music. Both acts here benefit from each other, using fecund studio time to stave off potential mid-career lulls (a risk these artists face in their more straightforward moments at this point).
A track like “The Bitter Suite” (pun-based name aside) should end any concerns about potential stagnation. The track merges three separate pieces into a cohesive whole, in which Beam’s acoustic “Tennessee Train” ends the track after it gets remade with a deeply Southwestern flavor for “Pajaro”. A simple but effective worldless piece connects them. This sort of cycle results from the freedom of collaboration, each act utilizing the skills and interests of the other to create something neither would likely have come up with. The whole album functions this way; rarely does it feel as if Calexico are simply putting music to Beam’s lyrics or vice versa.
Beam did write the bulk of the album, but the only time that feels particularly true is on “Father Mountain”. That cut suggests Beam’s continuing drift toward Cat Stevens territory, but its full sound and strong melody carry it. “Follow the Water” offers a similar folk-pop vein as Beam supplies an unending stretch of memorable lyrics, catching a place “Where small town thugs and lightning bugs / Shine in their final hours.”
Other tracks expand the aesthetic sensibility. Joey Burns’s “Midnight Sun” increases the weirdness of the album, with its oneiric mythology. With its freestyle, “Outside El Paso” highlights trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela on one of the sparest and most abstract pieces either of these acts has recorded. Valenzuela, who also sings on “The Bitter Suite” becomes one of the stars of the album, reminding us that Calexico, properly speaking, isn’t just two guys any more than Iron & Wine is still just one.
On the chorus of closing number “In Your Own Time”, Burns and Beam sing, “Come meet the family and sit by the fire / Someone will catch you if you want to fall.” It’s a comforting moment, and it’s easy to picture these acts happily around the campfire, but it disguises the intense musicianship behind the album. Calexico and Iron & Wine don’t just catch either other on falls – they push each other higher, a rewarding experience and hopefully an argument for not waiting another 15 years for a reunion.