Iron and Wine used to be only one person, Sam Beam, who had a guitar, a banjo, a four-track recorder and very little else. Beam’s debut album, The Creek Drank the Cradle revealed a literate artist with a backwoods aesthetic. The lo-fi production and the soft vocals led many writers to praise the porch-song sound of the album but for Our Endless Numbered Days Beam has brought in an assortment of people to add some more instruments and occasional background vocals. He’s also recruited Brian Deck (who produced Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica) to handle the production in his Chicago studio. This new album sounds fuller and crisper than Iron and Wine’s earlier recordings, but the minimalist artistry hasn’t changed.
The songs build around Beam whisper-singing and finger-picking an acoustic guitar or banjo. Although percussion appears throughout Our Endless Numbered Days, the tunes rely solely on Beam. Iron and Wine carry the personality of an early Delta blues singer, but the music stems more from a mountainous folk tradition. Beam’s lyrics express a greater optimism on this album than on his debut full-length, and the new, cleaner production opens up the atmosphere to release the vision.
The tension between opposites inherent in Iron and Wine — city professor and rural singer, solo blues and group folk, endlessness and numbering — play out in full in Beam’s mood pieces. The narrator of “Free Until They Cut Me Down” looks forward to his final moments leading up to and including his hanging. He recognizes that he’ll find freedom as he swings from a rope or is embraced by the sea, but that freedom lasts only until slice of the rope ends its sway. The singer acknowledges his past and has no objection to his execution; it’s this execution that’s somehow a release, but it’s the preceding crime that’s the imprisonment.
While “Free Until They Cut Me Down” only hints at the presence of God, other songs deal more directly with religion. “On Your Wings” opens the album and builds to its plea: “God, give us love in the time that we have.” Iron and Wine acknowledge life (rising in birth) and death (hangman) and their immediate intersections (the ravens in the corn, a reference to Van Gogh’s painting). Our travels won’t be easy, but we can still try and ask for something to carry us through. Beam’s narrators struggle, but the vignettes point us away from bleakness and towards hope.
“Sodom, South Georgia” has an obvious Old Testament resonance, and if the title suggests a faithless city in the Christian South, the singer calls attention to the demands and failures of unthinking religiosity in difficult times. The narrator’s father dies just as his daughter is born, and he understands (better than we do) that “all dead white boys say, ‘god is good.'” The sleepy town is “buried in Christmas / bows” and in some ways a dead faith is winning out over a live interrogation. It’s a hard song, but it’s set to simple, beautiful music, and Beam produces fascinating levels of examination.
With such powerful and intelligent songwriting, Beam enables himself to use lines that lesser performers wouldn’t get away with. In “Sodom, South Georgia”, Iron and Wine describe the town as one that “slept like a bucket of snow”. The metaphor has a poor technical structure, but the image works wonderfully in the context of a dreamy song full of tension. Beam draws lyrical strength from images that aren’t precise or accurate, but that are perfect surreal representations of a scene. The imaginative succeeds where the literal fails, and Beam claims this success unhesitatingly.
Beam’s triumphs are not limited to individual moments, however; Our Endless Numbered Days stuns, sedates, and fills from beginning to end. Iron and Wine (in any combination) have produced an understated of excessive beauty and lyricism. It’s complex, but never complicated; it’s soft, but never easy. It’s a man in a cornfield, on his back and imagining.