As soon as it was announced that Iron & Wine’s very own Sam Beam was to team up with Sub Pop label mate Jesca Hoop for a collaborative album, expectations were high, and after the first single, “Every Songbird Says”, was released, anticipation grew even more. It makes sense, since Iron & Wine is at the forefront in modern folk music while Jesca Hoop is a guitar virtuoso who has worked with everyone from Peter Gabriel to Mark Knopfler. Their musical tastes overlap, as their former collaboration on Hoop’s “Hunting My Dress” song from her last album showed, so there was no reason to doubt that a full-length album between them would be nothing short of excellent. However, not only do Beam and Hoop meet those high expectations, they shatter them on Love Letter for Fire by crafting some of their best songs to date.
The opener, “Welcome to Feeling”, does exactly what it should do: set the tone for the album. Riding underneath Hoop’s harmonious vocals is Beam’s voice echoing every line of Hoop’s. As the short introduction continues, the soft acoustic guitar that began the song passes the baton to a heavy, rolling violin that ends the intro beautifully. The only complaint about this track is that it feels more undeveloped than the rest of the album; even though it was meant to be an introduction, Beam and Hoop could have fleshed it out into a three- or four-minute track, since it had so many fantastic musical qualities already embedded in its framework.
The entire album retains the simple, rustic instrumental sound of the introduction. The acoustic guitar is always prominent, either strumming or gently fingerpicking, while light keys, a violin, and a cello move in the background to add weight to the music and also enhance the guitar and vocals. Although this may feel sleepy to some, it’s actually quite a shift musically for both Hoop and Beam. For Hoop, the instruments on this album are just a tad softer than some of her solo efforts, while the violin and cello make Love Letter for Fire as full and layered as some of Iron & Wine’s most recent albums like The Shepherd’s Boy and Kiss Each Other Clean. Neither Hoop nor Beam are out of their comfort zones with this instrumentation, but they also aren’t simply rehashing old ideas from their earlier solo projects.
Lyrically, Love Letter for Fire is filled with lines of love, nature imagery, and an assortment of references to Christianity and pagan mythology as well. In fact, the lyrics are so poetic that they should be delved into much more, since both Hoop and Beam have some enigmatic yet detailed verses throughout the album. On some songs, such as “Kiss Me Quick” and “One Way to Pray”, the duo either forgoes a chorus or changes the words slightly if there is one. While this may seem minor, these often less-utilized song structures keep the album interesting and prevent the tracks from sounding like carbon copies of one another.
Every once in awhile, a song appears that sounds more like a cover of an already existing Iron & Wine or Jesca Hoop track rather than a unique song in its own right. “Valley Clouds” and “Bright Lights & Goodbyes” could easily fit in Our Endless Numbered Days, with its barebones acoustic guitar and angelic vocals, while Hoop’s vocals on “Know the Wild that Wants You” make the song feels more like its featuring Sam Beam instead of having a duet with him. Nevertheless, these tracks are so well performed and beautiful that they needed to be on the album, even if they aren’t the most original musically.
By playing on the strengths of both artists while minimizing any deficiencies each may have, Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop have mastered the collaborative album. Where Iron & Wine can sound a bit too sleepy, Hoop plays up her vocals or instrumentation to keep the music lively; if she begins to make her performance a bit too grandiose, Beam is there to keep her feet on level ground. As a whole, Love Letter for Fire is the sonic equivalent of sitting in front of a campfire on the starry night with a couple of close friends strumming their acoustic guitar; it’s bucolic, simple, and guaranteed to delight. So grab some hot chocolate, put on the most comfortable pair of sweatpants that you can find, and let Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop serenade you with their majestic voices. If that’s not magical, nothing is.