fell in love with Sam Beam (the voice behind Iron & Wine), his guitar, his ginger locks, and his trademark beard in high school. But 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog’s shifted away from acoustics towards a more country/ folk-rock feel. This left me wondering where Sam Beam’s poignant guitar rifts had gone. I wanted to go back to the drifting melodies that rocked ever so slightly by Beam’s hushed voice. So, I had my doubts when it came to Iron & Wine’s new EP: Walking Far From Home.
Walking Far From Home gives us a taste of where Iron & Wine will head in their upcoming album, Kiss Each Other Clean, set to be released in January ‘11. From the glimpse provided by the EP, it appears that the album will not be a return to the older Iron and Wine that I believe many of us, myself included, initially fell in love with. But for those who were dissatisfied with ‘07’s The Shepherd’s Dog, this EP represents a divergence from Beam’s earlier work. The EP moves away from a country and acoustic sound to confront an interesting musical juxtaposition: Beam’s rustic voice situated within an electronic and jazz setting. By doing so, the album stands upon a musical threshold, straddling a number of genres–each song acting to illuminate Beam’s versatility.
The opening track “Walking Far From Home” (the only track that will actually appear on the new LP) gives the initial impression that Iron & Wine has gone electronic. The song, however, is driven by a composite of piano, the consistent beat of a snare, and Sam Beam’s slightly distorted voice. It invokes a repetition both in lyric, tempo, and melody that is reminiscent of Iron & Wine’s well-known track “The Trapeze Swinger”. The subtle use of piano acts to reinforce the profundity of Beam’s lyrics. This accentuates the track’s transcendent quality that displaces me, the listener, if I let myself wander with it. The ending almost seems to mirror the conclusion of a Sigur Ros song: subtle, whispered voices that are slightly indistinct.
But it’s a quick transition into the next track: “Summer in Savannah”, a song that blares jazz from the start. Filled with amazing syncopation and a fantastic horn solo about 2 minutes in, the song ends in a wonderful climax of utter jazz. Sam Beam’s voice seems somewhat misplaced in a sea of horns, but here emerges his versatility. The contrast between his voice and the jazz disrupts the distinctions of typical musical genres illustrating that Beam can move beyond folk and folk-rock labels.
The final track “Biting Your Tail” initially sounds like something out of the new Sufjan Stevens album or perhaps The Postal Service’s Give Up. It gives off an electronic feel with a synthesizer and a cyclical rhythm. However, it is supplemented with profound lyrics: an Iron & Wine staple. Indeed, “Walking Far From Home” and “Biting Your Tail” stand out with verses that I find myself repeating under my breath in an attempt to further encapsulate their warmth and insight.
If avid fans are expecting a return to the older Iron & Wine, they may be unimpressed with this EP and perhaps the upcoming album. But if they set their expectations aside, they will realize like myself that Sam Beam does not disappoint. Instead, he proves that he can move beyond acoustics and find innovative ways to make music. People should give this EP another listen if they don’t enjoy it at first: it is well worth the second chance.
At the end of “Biting Your Tail”, Beam advises “May your words be well worth stealing/ Put your hands on your heart when singing”. I believe that he follows this advice quite well in this new EP. Evocative of the Iron & Wine I fell in love with, Walking Far From Home sets me adrift within Beam’s passion. But instead of using a guitar, Beam has found new avenues through which to express his reverent melodies.