Sam Beam and producer Brian Deck continue to experiment in the studio, replacing the sounds of necessity with the sounds of possibility. Woman King is Iron & Wine's most economically expansive set of songs to date.
The only surprise greater than the apparitional appearance of Iron & Wine's The Creek Drank the Cradle in 2002 -- figuratively out of nowhere, literally out of Florida -- was that its more ambitious follow-up, Our Endless Numbered Days, was just as spellbinding and affecting. Sam Beam's acclimation to a professional studio showed no signs of motion sickness; sharp production and spacious arrangements replaced the lo-fi bedroom charm, but Beam's folk-blues poetics were not compromised.
Roughly one year since the release of Our Endless Numbered Days comes Woman King, an EP that continues the steady progression away from Creek's four-tracked solitude, logically picking up where its predecessor left off. While it incorporates more instrumentation than any other Iron & Wine effort, it does so sparingly: Beam, again with producer Brian Deck, shades the edges of his understated songs with caution, as if they physically possess a handmade fragility. The opening title track is built on shellacked percussion, a bone-toned, forested inversion of Johnny Cash's boom-chicka-boom rhythm. The song's relentless palpitations are that of "Mrs. Robinson" dragged through a swamp: clack, boom, clack, fuzzy bass, throaty slide guitar, steam ushered from a wooden train. Likewise, "Freedom Hangs Like Heaven" surrounds its bluesy acoustic riff with piano, banjo, and a commotion of percussive sticks; it's uncluttered but urgent, flirting with the concept of a boiling point but never reaching it. Like a Creek song Windexed and held up to the light, "Jezebel" is a gorgeous stitch of clicking stringed things, moving with the steady precision of time. Congas add punctuation to the clip-clop equestrian gait of "Gray Stables", its balance hanging in the steady hands of violin and sustained feedback; the closer "Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)" suggests an oncoming tempest with a stirring of instruments, a swirling of sound -- even (gasp!) distorted guitar.
Beam's spruced-up and increasingly involved multi-tracking is not a gentrification of Iron & Wine's sound. As always, the focal point is Beam's mature and mysterious songwriting, a style that keeps one foot in a shared lore and the other in a personal history. If Our Endless Numbered Days proved, among other things, that Creek wasn't a fluke, then Woman King puts Iron & Wine's handprints in cement as the greatest of this decade's folkologists. Woman King's songs are all musings on or portraits of female archetypes, but they're more noteworthy for Beam's signature touches: impeccable imagery; evocations of nature and religion; hushed, poetic couplets that simply have no peer. Woman King's visual palette (Beam used to teach cinematography) is reflective, knowing, sympathetic, curt, and wholly recognizable. Beam can be a tender imagist ("Mary, carry your babe / Bound up tight like lips around a whimper"), brooding impressionist ("Blackbird claw / Raven wing / Under the red sun"), deferential defeatist ("She was born to be the woman we could blame / Make me a beast half as brave, I'd be the same"), and blunt realist ("We were born to fuck each other / One way or another"). Woman King is, in essence, the sound of a songwriter with an intuitive grasp on his craft, swiftly acknowledging the studio's crucial supporting role in his songs' structure and rearing.
Where Iron & Wine's other EP, 2003's The Sea & the Rhythm, was a collection of songs recorded at the same time as Creek, Woman King's tracklisting is culled from entirely new sessions at Deck's Engine Studios. Don't be fooled by Woman King's length; its hypnotic 24 minutes are so strong that they have the tendency to feel even more essential than Our Endless Numbered Days' humble runtime. Beam's choice to issue Woman King as an EP rather than a full-length is, like his songwriting, an exercise in patience and restraint. A wise choice at that, for Woman King is just about as good as it gets -- proof that Beam's days are indeed endlessly numbered.