Iron and Wine: The Sea & the Rhythm

Iron & Wine
The Sea & the Rhythm
Sub Pop

I received my Iron and Wine CD in the mail fearing that it had been irreparably damaged from some watery mishap. Although I was initially upset, once I put the CD in the player and sat down to listen and read the lyrics, it seemed appropriate: The damaged booklet felt just like the sad, damaged characters in Sam Beam’s songs: worn and torn, but better for it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Iron and Wine’s music, let me give you a little introduction. Iron and Wine is actually a one man affair: Sam Beam and his 4-track recorder. The music is exceptionally sparse but the tape hiss and random pops and clicks seem as if they’re an accompaniment all by themselves. If you need a reference point, think Springsteen’s Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad albums. Although even those had additional instrumentation here and there, while the only instruments on The Sea & the Rhythm appear to be acoustic guitar and banjo. Beam is actually a film professor in Miami Beach, Florida, but his songs resonate with so much artistry, loneliness, and authenticity that it seems that he could easily make a living with his music should he so choose to in the future.

My first introduction to Iron and Wine was Beam’s cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” off of the CD single of the same name. I was intrigued enough by the sparse, acoustic rendition of the synth-pop tune that I quickly checked out Iron and Wine’s recently released debut LP, The Creek Drank the Cradle, and was delighted with what I had discovered. With lyrics as dense and poetic as Dylan (although they can often seem to be impenetrable), and a vibe that sounds straight out of Wim Wenders’s Paris Texas, Iron and Wine seemed like a healthy, if not improbable addition to the Sub Pop roster.

Less than a year on from The Creek Drank the Cradle comes this beautiful five-song EP, The Sea & the Rhythm. Starting right where the LP left off, The Sea & the Rhythm is another strong set of the kind of lonely, rural stories that made The Creek Drank the Cradle such a well-loved release. The EP opens with “Beneath the Balcony”, a song whose lyrics seem right out of a Springsteen epic, “Let’s go out and dance, darling / Our last of days / And grace the game with a blindfold on / The cheaters came to play”, but in the context of The Sea & the Rhythm it’s read more as a quiet meditation than as a built-for-speed anthem.

Next up is the title track, and it’s one of the very best written love songs you will hear this year. Against an even slower and sparser backdrop than “Beneath the Balcony”, Beam sings of what appears to be a night of lovemaking, as he equates his and his lover’s rhythms with those of the sea. It might sound obvious but it works really well; it’s an absurdly powerful and beautiful song. Such is the extent of Beam’s lyrical prowess that he tosses off lyrics like this effortlessly: “Tonight we’re the scent of your long black hair / Spread out like your breath across my back”.

The album’s centerpiece comes in the form of live-favorite “Jesus the Mexican Boy”. A sweet tale of generosity and forgiveness, it’s the story of a boy who is willing to help people for no other reason than simple kindness, until he is betrayed by his friend (yes, there is a lyrical reference to Judas), and even then kisses him “like a brother”. It’s one of the best melodies on the album, and further enhances Beam’s reputation as a songwriter and teller of apocryphal, left-field stories.

In doing some research for this review, I came across a picture of the The Sea & the Rhythm, and realized that what I originally mistook for water-damage is actually an intentional stain, and part of the album’s artwork. It seemed a fitting touch to a beautifully rendered recording. Like the album’s artwork, you’ll come away from The Sea & the Rhythm worn and torn, but better for it.