Calexico, Iron & Wine burn out before they get started in ‘Years to Burn’

Wednesday, June 19, 2019 - 12:19pm

North Country Public Radio

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Their second musical collaboration since 2005’s In The Reins, Calexico and Iron & Wine’s latest album, Years to Burn, smothers promising experimentation with a tangible lack of identity and album direction. The eight-song tracklist ultimately feels disjointed and frankly, boring. While In The Reins achieved some degree of success by complementing the folksy, soft-spoken lullabies of Iron & Wine with the vibrancy and grit of Calexico, Years to Burn fails to maximize the distinctive styles of each band.

The album features only a handful of notable moments. The opening song “What Heaven’s Left” is characterized by slow, relaxing vibes with a touch of country — a summer’s night immortalized by song. “I could be lost in the hills, down on my knees / And like the morning, you’ll find me in time” — a love song, with a sliver of longing hidden beneath.

Love as a saving grace is a recurring theme of Years to Burn. The song “Follow the Water” reiterates the sentiment: “Their hearts come out of the cold / In the nick of time.” Yet, the sense of heartbreak that lingers in every song suggests that using love to save oneself may be a mistake. Love can heal, protect, support, but if it becomes everything, can we stand on our own two feet?

Beyond these moments, the rest of Years to Burn is woefully lacking. “Outside El Paso” and “The Bitter Suite” are the products of obvious (failed) experimentation. “Outside El Paso” is a well timed instrumental break, but eerie and unnerving, as if caught in the trenches of a nightmare. While the song provides a refreshing break from poetic songwriting, it is ill-placed — these songs of heartbreak feel more like memories, or fairy tales, as opposed to the surreal sequence of “Outside El Paso.” “The Bitter Suite” tries to be original and invigorating, but is instead far too long and awkward. There is no smooth transition between “The Bitter Suite” and the rest of the album — maybe that’s intentional. I sure hope not.

Collaborations gain traction by pushing boundaries and thinking outside the box. It’s obvious that Calexico and Iron & Wine tried their best to foster a creative spark between them. This time, their best wasn’t enough. At the end of the album, I’m left grasping at loose ends. The structure of the album feels pointless — there is no crescendo or build up to something greater, and neither is there a tangible storyline. The album starts and ends with light-footed steps and soft whispers, but musical parallels don’t make up for a lack of thematic structure or connection. More poignantly, why anyone should listen to the album and what they might gain from listening is buried somewhere beneath repetitive songs of mountains and mysterious, wild women.

Years to Burn is 32 minutes of Calexico and Iron & Wine trying to light a fire with some flint-and-stone. Except none of them are boy scouts, and the fire never gets started — they’ll probably die in the woods, eaten by a bear. Or more appropriately, they’ll fall off a mountain in the dark (from a distinct lack of fire), as they foretold in “Father Mountain”: “There’s only one way off the mountain after all.”

Please, would someone just give these guys a lighter already?