Iron and Wine
Our Endless Numbered Days
o one romanticizes the South quite like the South. From the Sir Walter Scott-stolen notions of antebellum aristocracy to the whitewashed revision of the War Between the States as an honorable skirmish that didn’t have a thing to do with black folks, Dixie might just be the world’s most successful self-preservation society, endlessly buffing and rebuffing history into a TNT-colorized sheen.
On his debut album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam showed he understood the blood and guts of antiquity. Though his six-inch voice and softly strummed guitar seemed to promise a rose-coloured refraction of the pastoral South, Beam’s words had real bite, rooted in concrete images and plainspoken turns of phrase made darker and more poignant through centuries of implicit meaning.
In Beam’s universe, an image as placid and unobtrusive as that of a bird stealing bread became a metaphor for romantic delusion. Mining simple stories for complex truths (“love is a tired symphony you hum when you’re awake”), Beam displayed a refreshing sense of physicality in his verses (“There in the scab where you pinched my leg / Tracked on the floor where you walked outside”) and showed a sure-handed command of spiritual dread that nailed one of the fundamental peculiarities of the Southern aesthetic, namely the familiarity and “lived-in” quality of people’s relationship with Christ and the afterlife (“Daddy’s ghost behind you / Darkest den the devil made /Jesus weeps but he’s been paid / Jesus a friend in the better times / Let your mother’s Bible burn”).
Beam’s allegories might not have been as explicity Southern as those of the Drive-By Truckers or Trailer Bride, but he shared with those new-South Fugitive Poets a commitment to lyrical veracity and contextual verisimilitude. Call it an anti-alt-country movement if you will, rejecting that genre’s tendency towards fetishistic archetyping and empty regional signifiers, preferring unsexy characteres and unpleasant truths.
For Beam at least, lyrical specificity isn’t just a strong suit, it’s sometimes a saving grace. Lacking the strength of voice or forcefulness of personality to get over with the occasional underwritten song like his closest stylistic kin, Will Oldham and Jason Molina, Beam didn’t have to worry about being too slight on Creek because his words were just that good (and the melodies were no slouch either).
Despite the fact that much has been made of Beam’s move from the bedroom to the studio to record his second album, Our Endless Numbered Days, the most palpable loss can’t be measured in terms of lo-fi atmospherics. Instead, Beam seems to have smoothed over some of his rough-hewn ruralist poetics in favor of undeveloped blandishments and sentimental homilies. Not just that, but a number of Beam's ostensibly fleshed-out arrangements also come off distinctly underfed. Take the opener "On Your Wings," where Beam tries to manufacture tension through his taut fretwork and vocal restraint, but instead of a fervor settles for directionless incantation. Ditto the chorus of "Cinder and Smoke" and the whole of "Love and Some Verses" and "Radio War", trifles far too forgettable for a songwriter of Beam's caliber.
Worse still, we're introduced to a kinder, gentler Beam, which might leave you all like "Beam is sensitive beardo shockah!" if not for the fact that this folkie's more than capable of poetic incision. Here, however, Beam goes all doe-eyed and gooey on us a few too many times to stomach, pulling the wool on "Love and Some Verses" and succumbing to uncharacteristic banality on "Fever Dream," with its limpid refrain "I want your flowers / Like babies want God's love". "Naked As We Came" strays into similar territory with its tragic lover's pact, saved only by the fact that I'm enough of a sap to swallow it whole.
Of course, that's part of the problem, because I shouldn't have to sell myself on anything Beam sets to tape, and I shouldn't have to love one of his songs in spite of my better judgment. Beam even proves me right for almost half of the album, which includes a handful of heartstoppers that stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of his debut. "Sodom South Georgia", "Sunset Soon Forgotten" and "Passing Afternoon" dig deeper than the songs that surround them, subtly exploring childhood, death, and other kinds of loss, sidestepping easy sentiments while refusing to duck the tougher questions. Meanwhile, "Each Coming Night" proves Beam can be elliptical and still mesmerize, conjuring arguably the album's highlight from just a few weighted phrases and a hearbreaking moan.
Maybe it's too much to ask Beam to carry a torch or capture a regional milieu, and sophomore slumps are nigh on inevitable when you shamble onto the scene with such obvious brilliance, but it's still no easier to shake the suspicion that most of this album could've been made by a damned clean-shaven Yankee.