It’s difficult, nay, impossible to separate the music of Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine from Autumn, the turning of leaves, the flight of birds, and a sense of mystic calmness best experienced in these later months. Beam’s spare folk instrumentations, his cool, Paul Simon-inspired vocals, and of course poetic allusions to the natural world from early hits like 2004’s “Naked As We Come” until now lay evidence to this necessary description of Iron & Wine as “fall folk”. Yet, for a season which denotes change and maturation, very little has changed about Iron & Wine’s DNA since its inception. Though there have been experimental excursions into other sonic landscapes along the way, most notably 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean, very little separates 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days and Beam’s newest EP Weed Garden.
In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. An artist’s self-awareness of their strengths (and ability to continually act on them) is a mark of maturity. Foo Fighters, for example, have done very little to change their sound since the ’90s, and yet they continue to perform near that same level of youthful zeal they possessed 20-plus years ago, even if they haven’t released anything to “wow” fans or critics lately. Iron & Wine carries that same sense of knowing exactly what works, and not in a contrived pop radio way. Beam is still honest, refreshing, and able to express that nostalgic combination of melancholy and hope, that feeling of sehnsucht often experienced in the fall months.
Weed Garden opens with “What Hurts Worse“, an autumnal call to action reminding listeners that “flowers will close and open / life going by like we care.” As the world outside rumbles tirelessly on, Beam urges us to “forget whatever we lost / rolling around in the weeds” and instead, “become the lovers we need”. It’s a reminder that what we long for in the world and what we rage about daily on social media will only be changed by the maturation of ourselves first. Beam’s vocal strengthens above his typical tranquility as the song progresses, suggesting the urgency of his message to be heard in the present.
But if the message of this opening track seems a bit “easier said than done”, mid-album track “Milkweed” offers an unfortunate explanation for our stunted growth. Over beautifully tragic chamber folk orchestrations reminiscent of the melancholic “Eleanor Rigby“, Beam reminds the listener that “the summer leaves are afraid of changing / coming back for something.” As the butterflies return to milkweeds, the sustenance of their youth, so we too often lead cyclical lives, always nostalgic for past sources of happiness instead of seeking out new joys.
The only vice which Beam commits to distract from this warning is that he seems to be stuck in this cycle musically, returning to what has worked for him consistently across his career and taking a (mostly) very safe approach to songwriting here on Weed Garden. While “Milkweed”, “What Hurts Worse”, and EP closer “Talking to Fog” are worthy of joining the Beam canon, the remaining tracks tend to showcase the replaceability of many of his tracks, hardly distinguishable from 14 years ago. That being said, perhaps Beam is fully aware of this vice and sings to encourage himself, the summer leaves, afraid of changing.