Woman King

The origins of Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine were not so inauspicious or unassuming as they were precarious. Somewhere in the south a bearded college professor quietly commits an enchanted body of song to tape in the safe seclusion of his bedroom. These recordings rather unexpectedly result in widespread critical acclaim. With this success, Beam had painted Iron & Wine into the tightest corner with his simple strokes of soft-focus genius. Doing more of the same would draw accusations of limited aesthetic vision but any deviation from these initial efforts would surely be decried for ruining what was so right to begin with.
Beam grappled with this predicament on 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days to only limited success. Struggling to expand his sonic spectrum, some sacrifice was made of the initial intimacy that defined Beam’s prior work. Softer songs from the same palette as The Creek Drank the Cradle merely withstood the more clinical production but were made no better for it. Songs seeking to augment that sound with fuller arrangements and more moderately lively tempos yielded stiff, sterile, and awkward results. Even with those missteps, Beam further established himself as a skilled songwriter of delicate depth and deft maturity. The record proved itself to be at best good but by no means great and nothing nearly as striking as Beam’s debut.
With Woman King Beam begins to reconcile the ethereal charm of his homemade recordings with the more conventional approach of his most recent work. Mistakes made are corrected with Beam succeeding where he once failed. Fuller arrangements flow more fluidly and allow for new tones and textures without compromising any of Beam’s many strengths.
Compared to Woman King, Our Endless Numbered Days sounds like a transitional work aching with the agony of progress. That awkwardness has given way to graceful refinement and more comfortable carriage. Benefiting from more time on tour and more experience in the studio, Beam sounds much more at home backed by a band and behind a professional producer’s microphone.
Sounding more like a band than a set of studio musicians, the accompaniment is no longer forced or rigid but more malleable and natural. This allows for even greater instrumentation, including the rather unlikely but surprisingly organic sound of a brightly burning fuzzed-out electric guitar amidst the folk strings and finger-picking otherwise associated with the group. Beam even manages the effortless delivery of the line “we were born to fuck each other one way or another” into this more vibrant and varied sonic environment.
That atmospheric consonance harkens back to the vaporous haze of The Creek Drank the Cradle. Moving beyond tape-hiss and happenstance, Woman King forges this ambience through intricate production and aesthetic preference. Some of this may stem from the return of Brian Deck who also produced Our Endless Numbered Days. Now both producer and artist have a more clearly established understanding of each others’ processes and their common creative vision.
This balance of sonic variation and unification is complemented by a comprehensive thematic concentration. Woman King draws its title from the record’s focus on female figures from Beam’s personal and theological relationships. Here Beam masterfully imparts holiness to earthly forms while humanizing heavenly icons; Jezebel becomes an idol to pray to and Mary becomes a “mama” whose babe can “lick that devil and do it alone.”
For all this development, the most captivating songs on Woman King are still those most akin to The Creek Drank the Cradle. “Jezebel” and “My Lady’s House” fuse delicate atmospherics with syrupy melodies, Beam’s voice rarely rising above a languorous whisper. There is an uncanny sense of intimacy about these songs that is instantaneously ingratiating.
The scope of Sam Beam’s vision and ambition is pushed profoundly forward on Woman King. Through only six songs the EP proves both satisfying and rewarding. The strength of this release only raises the standards by which Iron & Wine’s work will be judged in the future. Should this prove to doom and damn Beam like his prior successes it does so as a triumphant creative victory.

Listen to "Freedom Hangs Like Heaven" - sure to be the best 2005 indie rock song about Christ that isn't from Sufjan Stevens.

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