An Artist's Progress

There are Iron & Wine fans who miss Sam Beam's lo-fi and sparse days of old, but they're missing the point of his growth as a musician

At the beginning of Sam Beam's recording career, the name Iron & Wine held a mysterious duality.

A dozen years later, viewing the progression of Beam's career from spare and intimate lo-fi solo recordings to the major-label orchestral sound that incorporates jazz, R&B, pop and African influences, the captivating yin-and-yang of the name Iron & Wine seems a little prophetic.

While iron and wine certainly aren't exact opposites, the words stand in well as descriptive terms for the two ends of Beam's musical spectrum. Iron—unadorned, elemental, simple, sturdy and raw—characterizes 2002 debut record The Creek Drank the Cradle. Wine—complex, refined, delicate, carefully made and raw—becomes an interesting description of his latest, 2013's Ghost on Ghost.

The essence of Beam is in the middle of the two, but it's a lot less Nick Drake and a lot more Paul Simon, perhaps disappointing many of his earliest fans, but ultimately making for a catalog of five studio records and an assortment of EPs, singles and live recordings that is more fascinating and rich for its variety.

And besides, resting on the iron-and-wine duality of Beam's sound risks missing other duality in evaluating his career—those between the music and lyrics, the albums and performances and even between the solo shows where the spotlight strikes only on the thickly bearded Beam and those with as many as a dozen members of the band.

As a lyricist, especially in his earlier work, Beam evoked bygone eras, his own spin on the Southern Gothic tradition leading to wide praise. Many of the songs on The Creek Drank the Cradle—especially, but not limited to, "Upward Over the Mountain," "Promising Light," and "An Angry Blade"—felt so unusual for singer-songwriter material precisely because Beam's artistic background was removed from that world. An art-school graduate with a master's degree in film, Beam was a professor of cinematography at the University of Miami before releasing his debut.

The narrative sweep and detailed imagery of Beam's writing hasn't faded. On the page, "Caught in the Briars"—among several others from Ghost on Ghost—are as vivid, fluid and particular to Beam's style as those lauded early songs.

Interestingly however, Beam is exploring new landscapes in the Ghost on Ghost songs. In "The Desert Babbler," the South Carolina native writes of being lost, looking at the moon hanging over California skies. A cross still hangs on the wall, but it's back home and faraway, while Beam is stuck among bug-eyed Barstow boys, "dying for a place to fall apart." In "New Mexico's No Breeze," Beam again finds church bells in an old mission, but his attention also turns to the hard-hitting sun and a sky broken by thunderstorm rain.

Those songs—and Beam's increasingly collaborative recording sessions—suggest that perhaps he found the fulcrum between his iron and wine sides in Tucson. Beam recorded In the Reins here with Calexico, taking over Wavelab studio late in 2004 for an EP that showcased a new side of Beam, as well as Calexico's chameleonic skill as accompanists. The song "Dead Man's Will" can be heard on both In the Reins and in its demo form (plucked from the same batch of home recordings that became The Creek Drank the Cradle) on a YETI magazine compilation, the best example of that iron-and-wine duality showcased in a single song.

Just a half year before In the Reins came out, Iron & Wine released the Woman King EP, which also represented an expanded sound, filled with electric guitars and tribal percussion. Those 2005 EPs led into 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, Beam's last record for Sub Pop Records and the one that completed his move away from the humble, lo-fi beginnings.

There are certainly purists who prefer Iron & Wine as they first heard it, Beam alone, without accompaniment (and he's regularly toured that way, even as his musical vision has grown ambitious and expansive). Indeed, celebrating life as it once was is the thrust of Beam's finest song, the non-album "The Trapeze Swinger," a hypnotic, dreamscape tune that mesmerizes from the first listen. "Please, remember me," sings Beam at the beginning of each of the songs's eight verses, his writing cryptic and laden with biblical imagery as he circles from abstraction to deep and distinct nostalgia. Life means that it's all in there together, Beam suggests, the iron and the wine.