Singer-songwriter Sam Beam has been recording as Iron & Wine since 2002. He’s gone through a gamut of musical styles since then. Longtime listeners will know him for his whispered-vocal acoustic work on his first few albums (“The Creek Drank the Cradle,” “Our Endless Numbered Days”) or for his orchestra and brass blues band arrangements with electronic influence (“Kiss Each Other Clean,” “Ghost on Ghost”) depending on when they started listening to Beam’s project.
With “Beast Epic,” Beam returns to his early acoustic style with a mature and optimistic outlook. Now 43, Beam pens songs tinged with themes of nostalgia, hope and mortality. This album relies on Beam’s soft, high voice balanced over an orchestra of acoustic guitars, fiddles, cellos, pianos and an upright bass; no brass bands or jazz influence in earshot. It’s primarily a folk album with refreshing indie-rock influence.
The album opens with “Claim Your Ghost,” a stripped-down, acoustic and vocal track that establishes the tone of “Beast Epic:” informal, oblique Southern Gothic poetry about heartbreak and sensitivity. One of Beam’s lyrics illustrates the tone of this song and a few others on “Beast Epic” -- “Our music is clumsy and free.”
“Thomas County Law” is Beam’s illustration of a rural town and the people who live there. After a live performance, Beam once said it may be a fictional town, but many of us have a real version of it somewhere with a different name.
“Call it Dreaming” is an upbeat and instrumentally dense song about how Beam learned to make the best of life’s bad situations, reframing our experiences to find beauty in memories that were once painful and taking lessons from them. “Beast Epic” is less melancholy than earlier Iron & Wine albums. This song could describe his path to a more positive outlook and why that outlook matters.
“About a Bruise” sounds upbeat and joyous, but the lyrics are a bitter description of someone who hurt the narrator. Beam’s accusatory, yet still clever lyric-writing style of previous albums makes an appearance here.
“Our Light Miles” showcases Beam’s thoughts and questions on death and legacy. This song closes the album with some heavy thoughts that deserve consideration from any fan of Beam’s resonant songwriting.
“Beast Epic” sounds pleasant and pretty to the distracted listener. I’ll admit I’ve played this album just before going to sleep at least a dozen times since it came out. If you’re not listening to the lyrics, it’s not an exciting album. However, an engaged listener will find dense thoughts and concerns in Beam’s words. Saccharine instrumental arrangements are balanced with lyrics about failure and mortality.