4 May 2024

Review: Light Verse by Iron & Wine

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 4 May 2024
Sam Beam AKA Iron and Wine

Photo: Kim Black

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Sam Beam has been releasing music as Iron & Wine for over twenty years now, a career which started when he was a professor of film and cinematography at the university of Miami, and decided to record some songs he’d been working on.

A friend had lent him their 4-track tape machine, and its murky audio quality wound up being crucial. Beam’s folk songs were drenched in the twang of Americana, and the vintage recorder made them sound like they’d been gathering dust in a basement somewhere, waiting to be discovered. 

He soon graduated to higher fidelities and studio embellishments, and on his latest, continues to push his sound into interesting new areas, despite having a voice, and songwriting chops, that for many would be enough. 

Over his career Beam has drawn comparison to, and cited, soft-spoken artists like Elliott Smith, and Nick Drake, and those are good touchstones, although he’s still injecting plenty of Southern attitude into his tunes. 

Acoustic guitars plonk around the edges of ‘Anyone’s Game’, the singer leaning into his falsetto, and knack for gorgeous vocal harmonies.

The last time he used an external producer was Brian Deck on 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean, who spun those harmonies into songs that evoked Beach Boys and other AM radio classics. It was the most experimental Iron and Wine has ever been, and notably since then he’s handled production himself.   

For Light Verse, he employed a new band, and leaned into a sound that suits him perfectly: several songs feature a soothing, swelling bed of strings.

Light Verse is a well-chosen name, it's elliptical enough, but taken literally still works: these verses are particularly light. Beam has always had a gentle touch, and he does attempt to subvert it here and there, with eruptions of noise, or using a tougher tone of voice. But the most immediately impressive tracks here are the sunniest, like ‘Sweet Talk’, which finds him embracing middle age with gusto.

Beam often appears to be singing to a partner, and it’s a safe assumption that’s his wife, mother to their five children. Lines in that song like “let’s get tangled in the hair of a wonderful life”, and, “let’s get under the skin of a wonderful life” seem to suggest a man who’s content. 

On ‘Cutting it Close’ there’s a lyric that stings slightly, when he says “time just does what it does, I only wish it wouldn't do it to us”.

‘All in Good Time’ finds him joined in a duet by Fiona Apple, charting a fictional romance involving a mattress stuffed with cash and stolen cars.

Listening to live versions of older Iron and Wine songs, he seems to be a performer keen to reinvent or subvert each melody he sang on record. I’m glad that on Light Verse he shies away from that, not afraid to embrace big, broad vocal lines.

The album’s biggest success is how unencumbered it feels, and the addition of a string section suits this buoyancy perfectly. The tunes are still soothing, but each contain hints of Beam’s restless spirit, still evolving his sound in unobtrusive ways.