Ignore the misleading album title; Sam Beam’s decade long exploration of sounds and styles has not taken a shocking turn towards an aggressive hip-hop record nor has he turned for metal for inspiration. In fact, Beast Epic is arguably the complete opposite of this, representing a return to his sonic roots, with a simple, acoustic led folk pop dominating. Symptomatic of this back to basics approach is the return of Iron & Wine to Sub Pop Records, where his recording career was launched in the early 2000s, a time when indie rock embraced its folksy roots. The album suggests that signing back at his ‘spiritual home’ has given Beam an opportunity to reflect on and explore the same things which inspired him to abandon his career in education for music.
While Beast Epic is undeniably stripped back when compared with the likes of Ghost on Ghost, it is not a complete double back, as the production value remains high and a long way from the lo-fi home recordings of his debut. There are a wealth of acoustic sounds throughout the record, with guitar, violin and banjo included, and to this are added percussion, horns, and keys. The result is an understated but often lush soundscape that still feels simple and warm on the ear. The one track which diverts from type on the album is “Last Night” which comes across in the context of the record as an experimental moment, with Beam having fun with compositions and instruments. However, even this is not a step too far from the whimsical haze that defines Beast Epic.
With the instrumentation simplified, the emphasis on Beam’s singing is thrust back into the spotlight and Beast Epic is arguably his finest vocal performance to date. His rich tones swell over the underlying music and carry a strong emotional punch. His vocal performance is underpinned by his prowess as a modern songwriter. As he enters middle age, there are reflections on death, relationships, and family right from the opening track “Claim Your Ghost”, as Beam reflects “our winter keeps running us down, we wake up with love hanging on”. “Bitter Truth” details a break up with such profound honesty, observing the real emotions of moving apart from a loved one without the typical sugar coating of popular music. Similarly “Summer Clouds” reflects “by the end, we leave somewhere too long to ever wander back, by the end we give someone too much to ever close the hand”, and with that moment of stark realism, we are reminded why Beam is such an engaging artist.
The result is a mature record that feels adult in both sound and message. The “Thomas County Law” music video provides a dark insight into the mindset which drove Beam in recording Beast Epic, as his own funeral is planned; the lilies picked, pews cleaned, chairs put out, and grave dug, and in singing the lyrics back to himself, represents a man reflecting on his life and choices and in the process feeling comfortable in returning to his root. There are more familiar themes running through the record as well, with repeated religious overtones (“Song in Stone”, “The Truest Stars We Know”) and reflections on the South on “About a Bruise”, paying homage to the place which has inspired his work. The music video of “Call It Dreaming” provides a visual introduction to this environment and presents the most full-bodied track on the album, with percussion, cello and keys adding depth to the most forgiving and endearing track on the record and one that feels best suited to popular success.
No single track on the album exceeds the four-minute mark. Neither do many of the songs provide much of a challenge for the listener. Instead, across the course of its 11 tracks, Beast Epic leaves a sense of comfort and knowing. By that token, it will not be considered a classic record and many of the tracks blend into a warm, slightly blurred haze. However, it also marks a return to form for Iron & Wine, and certainly his best album since 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, and potentially his finest vocal performance to date. In heading back to basics, Beam has delivered the kind of lyrical and vocal performance which explains why he has enjoyed such a long and varied recording career and will no doubt continue to do so. However, after this return to basics, it will be intriguing to see where he takes the project next.