IRON & WINE
Our critics’ selection of the best live events
Not many people know this, but 20 years ago, when American singersongwriter Sam Beam was studying film, he was working on a low budget movie in the middle of rural Georgia.
Stepping into a local petrol station shop, he spied on the shelves a protein supplement called Beef, Iron & Wine. The rest is some shape of history – Beam dropped the ‘Beef’ because he realised that in his attempts at songwriting he wanted to highlight what he termed the “sour and the sweet”.
Before the songwriting took hold, however, Beam was a movie man. After graduating from the Florida State University Film School, his position as Professor of Film & Cinematography at the University of Miami and Miami International University of Art & Design yielded his primary source of income. A friend of his at the time, however, gave him the loan of a four-track recorder, and before too long Beam signed a deal with Sub Pop.
Influences were, perhaps, the usual ones that budding singer-songwriters fall under the spell of (Nick Drake, Neil Young, Elliott Smith) but his 2002 debut album, The Creek Drank the
Cradle, was nonetheless praised for its variety of low-key folk/roots styles, of which all were heightened by Beam’s voice. For an album that comprised a bunch of songs demoed on that four-track recorder it hit the mark, with Drowned In Sound calling it “a masterstroke of lilting, literate, whispered and impassioned country-folk that sets Sam Beam out as one of America’s finest new songwriters”.
Of course, the “new” tag has long since disappeared. No longer the ingenue, Beam is one of the more prolific American singer-songwriters out there: since his debut, he has released a further seven studio albums (two in collaboration with other songwriters – solo artist Jesca Hoop and Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell), seven EPs, three live albums, and three compilations consisting of rarities, b-sides and previously unreleased home recordings. Where others scrape the bottom of the barrel, however, there is quality in all of these, and that is one of Beam’s saving graces.
Now approaching his mid-40s, married, with five daughters (blessed is he amongst women, and so on), Beam certainly has enough real-life material passing by him every day by which to forge songs. His latest album – last year’s Beast Epic, which followed his two-album collaboration – brought him right back to where he started: singing downtempo, resonant acoustic songs that are equal parts romantic (‘you raised your glass, and the scars fell off my heart’, he sings on Summer Clouds) and folksy. Reviewing the album on its release last August, Rolling Stone noted that Iron & Wine had “rediscovered the power and beauty in scaling back when it serves the song . . . the result is Beam’s most dynamic and convincing record in years”.
Such a critical tone rings true when you take into account Beam’s own feelings on the album. In an unusual instance of a songwriter (rather than a record-company employee) outlining the reasons or themes behind a record, Beam says the latest album is steeped in the passing of time. “Where the older songs painted a picture of youth moving wide-eyed into adulthood’s violent pleasures and disappointments, this collection speaks to the beauty and pain of growing up after you’ve already grown up. For me, that experience has been more generous in its gifts and darker in its tragedies.” And a happy St Valentine’s Day to you, too.
Iron & Wine plays The Helix, Dublin, next Wednesday. See ticketmaster.ie
Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, onstage in Berlin last month.