Curl up near a trash can fire in the desolate countryside because Sam Beam, known better to his fan base by the stage name Iron and Wine, has a few stories to tell. The banjos and slide guitars are staples of Beam’s production, and his bittersweet weaving of intimate stories and folk melodies can be found on Woman King. Following last year’s breakout release Our Endless Numbered Days, Iron and Wine hasn’t altered the stable elements that defined his personal success.
Iron and Wine is a rarity among popular music; he is an artist who actually belongs with a previous generation of singers. His turn-of-the-century train-track harmonies are anachronistically sublime compared to the pre-assembled corporate folk-pop of acts like Nickelback and Avril Lavigne. Beam, a Florida native and father of two, began recording folk music without celebrity aspirations of being recognized as “that guy from the Garden State soundtrack.” After catching the attention of Sub Pop Records, the label responsible for such bands as Nirvana and the Postal Service, Beams received the chance in 2002 to release his lo-fi collection of home recordings under the title The Creek Drank the Cradle.
Two albums and one EP later, Woman King has Beam’s familiar whispering and introspective lyrics. However, it has a much cleaner production due entirely to a professional recording studio and the use of a full band of musicians. While fans may find relaxation in his unintrusive music, Woman King offers a new surprise to the listener: a distorted electric guitar. In fact, while the tone of the album finds refuge in the familiar styles that have defined folk for the last century, a new aggressive attitude and stomping tempo drive the EP. In “Evening on the Ground,” an aura of desperation lies behind the fast-paced percussion and angry lyrics, “We were born to fuck each other / One way or another.” Beam assumes the narrative of a runaway slave in “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven.” The song gets its drive from a saloon-honky-tonk piano and a hoedown beat.
Despite Iron and Wine’s experimentation with instrumental and electric layering, Woman King thrives on its cozy demeanor and timeless beauty.
Certainly Iron and Wine has not stepped out of the comfortable space of folk rock. Ultimately, the album’s sound does not depart greatly from his previous albums. The soft, harmonized vocals become tiresome after too much listening, and the broody lyrics resemble those sung by Neil Young 30 years ago.
Overall, Iron and Wine’s latest EP adds beautifully to his profuse collection of folklore rock. His increasing fusion of textures shows a musical maturation, and sets a backdrop for a more dusty and gorgeous rural folk tradition.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars