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Iron & Wine strikes a warm balance on ‘Beast Epic’

| Friday, September 1, 2017

1504221663-8ea464f1383b079Dominique DeMoe | The Observer

Growing out of Samuel Beam’s stripped down, hushed sounds of yore under his “Iron & Wine” moniker, “Beast Epic” is a fitting title for the artist’s most recent project. Yet the album is epic not in its outlandishness, size, or theatricality, but in the way nearly each song manages to envelop the listener with rich, layered tones, percussive sounds, vocal harmonies and — of course — acoustic riffing. One of the most special things about the new album is the sense of being in an intimate show with Beam, a feeling lost on the grandiose efforts of previous albums. The “epic” nature of the album is also clear. The work feels like a journey through the eleven tracks, yet each individual song stands on its own. The lyrics are poetic and longing, and the songs’ tendencies toward crescendo give the album a tangible sense of reaching and of searching.

Beam kicks off “Beast Epic” in typical fashion with the acoustic riff-laden “Claim Your Ghost,” which is a loose yet remarkably heavy tune. The song devolves to a sort of guitar-and-vocals-in-the-round Gregorian chant for lumberjacks on the line “killers let go / killers let go.” “Claim Your Ghost” serves as an invitation of sorts to join Beam in his catharsis over the course of the album, urging the listener to follow him. “Bitter Truth” offers another musical surprise, peppering some twinkling piano over the guitar and vocals to a very pleasant effect.

“Beast Epic” is an obvious choice for the album title, as the lyrics and reverberating sounds often make you feel lost in the middle of some sort of journey. “Song in Stone” offers a beautiful promise of eternity without becoming too existential or morbid. Similarly, “Summer Clouds” (which is unexpectedly and delightfully bluegrass-tinged) has the feeling of a Jason Isbell song without tipping into the depressive and melancholy. Beam manages to tiptoe this line very carefully, singing about limitlessness without instilling fear. When not contemplating the bounds of time and love, “Beast Epic” does prefer lyrics fitting for Instagram captions — most evidently on “Call it Dreaming,” in which Beam sings, “We can burn and be forgiven / Where our hands hurt from healing / We can laugh without a reason.” The poetry in Beam’s lyrics often gets washed away in the airiness of the album, but this is not a deal breaker.

A little over halfway through the album, “About a Bruise” surprises with the female-voiced “bang” elevated over the initial verses. The song grows a bit stale towards the middle, returning to the standard Iron & Wine acoustic riff-and-repeat formula. The end of the song teases the listener once again with a gorgeous vocal round. Though it’s a shame that Beam didn’t rely more heavily on these arrangements, places where the haze of his sound is elevated to a place outside the limits of his comfort zone. These moments are also some of the most sonically beautiful places on the album. Yet this is to be expected from an Iron & Wine record — it’s sonically cohesive almost to the point of monotony, with the mood of the tune being the main variant throughout.

Altogether, “Beast Epic” is a thoroughly pleasant listening experience that invites the listener to Google the lyrics and doodle their favorites in their diary. You’ll feel the warmth of the album in each song, but it’ll never get too hot. “Beast Epic” is an album for lying in bed on a Sunday morning with the windows open, and what could be more pleasant and less controversial than that?

Artist: Iron & Wine

Album: “Beast Epic”

Label: Sub Pop

Favorite Track: “Song of Stone,” “Claim Your Ghost”

If you like: Sufjan Stevens, The Head And The Heart, Father John Misty

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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