Unknown Sessions: The Aching Sadness of Iron & Wine

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On his last two albums, Sam Beam, the genius behind the folk band Iron & Wine, has introduced noise. Contrary to the first half of his career, when many songs contained vocals, a guitar and little else, The Shepherd’s Dog (2007) and Kiss Each Other Clean (2011) came with a litany of instruments and a sonic ambition far beyond Beam’s bare origins. Melody and poetry were the centerpieces, as ever, but the whispered nostalgic tones had been replaced by something more upbeat and varied. As Beam himself said, there are even a few songs that might make you dance. The results of this transition have been met with almost universal praise, and he’s cemented his place as one of the great American songwriters. And while I enjoy almost everything about the new music, I have to confess that I miss the naked sadness of the beginning.

When the Shepherd’s Dog was released, I tried to make the argument to friends and fellow music fans that it was a step backward, at least relatively. The volume of the disagreement was so intense that I was forced to check my theory. When Kiss Each Other Clean was released and I still felt essentially the same, I began to realize I was wrong. What Sam Beam was doing, and what every musician should aspire to do, was an act of evolution. By continuing his own artistic transformation, Beam produced work that reached a broader audience without alienating the original fans. So what if he changed styles? Imagine if Radiohead had continued making The Bends over and over, or if The Beatles spent 20 years writing songs just like “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” It was absolutely the best thing Beam could have done, and anybody who resented it was putting himself ahead of the music.

But in this case, I was a selfish fan. Beam’s early work, to me, captured something so powerful, and so perfect, that I never wanted him to change. And that ephemeral element, so rich and devastating, was sadness. I’d yet to find something of that magnitude, and I probably never will again. Other artists had their moments, but nobody could hit me so consistently, and so hard, as Beam. The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002) and Our Endless Numbered Days (2004) are the albums at the core of this peak, and a number of EPs, including a wonderful collaboration with Calexico called In the Reins, are equally essential.

Unlike many of my other favorite artists, Beam never tempered the sadness (or set it off) against a backdrop of humor. This struck me as courageous, because without that safety net, his music always risked being overwrought. And the choice wasn’t made because Beam himself was humorless. In person, from what I can gather through interviews, he seems funny and outgoing. He’s not the melancholic saturnine Petrarch you might imagine if you heard his music and saw a picture of his gloomy eyes and his long, semi-Tolstoyian beard. In an interview after a folk festival this past January, for example, he had this exchange with a radio host named Greg Vandy:

Vandy: I think it was in rotation, your very first record, and I remember there were always descriptors on the actual CD. And I think yours was something like, “Florida film teacher releases record.”

Beam: Yeah, basically.

Vandy: Is that true? Were you a Florida film teacher?

Beam: Yeah, just Florida films.

He paused a moment, smiling, waiting for Vandy to get the joke. When that didn’t happen, he quickly moved on so Vandy wouldn’t feel like he was missing out or being mocked in some subtle way. And isn’t that always true with humor? The minute it goes over someone’s head, it becomes a force of separation rather than something that can bridge a gap. The exchange, short as it was, proved two points. First, Beam was funny. Second, he was kind.

Last week, letting my iTunes run wild, I stumbled on an Iron & Wine album labeled “Unknown Early Sessions.” Two of the 20 songs were later released on The Creek Drank the Cradle. One was a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” The other 17, as far as I can tell, were never released (even on the compilation Around the Well, a 2009 album composed entirely of early songs). I’m not sure where the sessions came from, or even when. The ambiguity implies that it was a leak. But it’s a good bet that at least some of the songs were the famous demos that attracted the Sub Pop label to Beam in the first place, and that all of them were made on a four-track recorder he was given by a friend.

As I listened to the songs—raw, painful and gorgeous—I had the same thought that crossed my mind the first time, and every time after. As far as I’m concerned, these sessions are the greatest hidden treasure on the indie music landscape.

It’s difficult to write about sadness in music, because at its center is an indefinite feeling that revolves around personal experience. When I listen to an Iron & Wine song, it prompts a swirl of specific memories that build off each other. My brain goes on tangents, and if I find myself reacting, it may be because of a fleeting thought that would seem, from the outside, far removed from the music and lyrics in my earphones. But the personal stuff isn’t important; what matters is Beam’s ability to inspire and evoke this mental empathy, which is like a collision of subconscious emotion that takes its own form in the mind of every individual listener. This is the essence of good poetry, and good poetry is heightened by good music.

So in one sense, the best thing I can say is, “if you like to delve into sadness, the kind that’s sharp and aching, not dull and bleak like depression, but alive with memory and beauty and the realization of the limited nature of a human life, then nobody can trigger those feelings like Sam Beam.” And because the wonderful songs on the albums and EPs I’ve already mentioned are widely available and well known, and I don’t want to be redundant, I’ll talk about the Unknown Early Sessions.

When I describe Beam’s voice as a half-whisper, don’t be deceived; it’s a smooth, rustic instrument imbued with power. Over the crackles of the four-track recording, he weaves his way across the emotional spectrum, alighting on something pure when he needs to, but earning your faith in his storytelling at every step. His tone is the one that can touch them all. On “California,” over a simple strummed melody, the first verse illustrates the quality of Beam’s lyrics:

The postman passed me twice now, I have waited an hour
Blue sky churning black now, needle rain with the power
Of magnified abandon, soaking through to my moving
Vivid truth I’m doubting all the while that It’s proven

Have you thought you might should be in California?
Your tactile look of honesty, I know they’d love you

After the first line, the rest of the verse should be read as a single sentence, and becomes even more beautiful when written as such: “Blue sky churning black now, needle rain with the power of magnified abandon soaking through to my moving, vivid truth I’m doubting all the while it’s proven.” The technique here is called enjambment, and it’s difficult to pull off while maintaining a rhyme scheme since you essentially have to rhyme with mid-sentence words. Throw rhythm and melody into the mix, and you practically have to be a savant just to write something intelligible, much less meaningful.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a good starting to point to understanding Beam’s lyrical skill. And like all good poetry, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The melancholy of the opening stanza, when the singer waits in the rain for a letter from a woman who’s never coming, as the “needle rain” brings the dawning reality of an abandonment he can no longer deny, is played against the yearning of the chorus, complete with a faint, vanishing hope. Longing in vain for a woman is by no means a rare theme in music, but tell me, when has it ever been expressed like this?

Then there’s “A Book Unfinished,” possibly the best song on the collection. Again, the melody is simple and the vocals come through in the trademark half-whisper. There are two verses, separated by a harmonica coasting along the minor chords:

You returned the book unfinished about a girl with raven hair
And a gentleman, her lover, who presented her a mare
Which she rode across the country, leaving him to tend the land
Which had turned to drier quarter when it met his lonely hands …

Blind man found a baby, and the virgin kissed a man
From the farmland proven fertile since the rain returned again
But you returned the book unfinished to your friend around the bend
Who had scribed a closing passage but you never reached the end

On the surface, the story is simple—the reader couldn’t handle a book that may have been too close to his own sad story for comfort, so he returned it and missed the redemptive ending. Even with this interpretation, it’s a moving ode to resilience and the way life can deliver happiness even when it appears permanently barren.

But listening to the song recently, a second interpretation occurred to me; one that I’m becoming more and more convinced is true. The clue comes in the final two lines. I have no way of proving this, but what if the “friend around the bend” is Beam’s version of God? And what if “returning the book unfinished” is a metaphor for suicide? In that reading, this is the story of a man who responded to adversity and heartbreak by taking his own life. But the end of the story, as written by God, contained redemption. The book of his life, though, could never reach that ending because he returned it prematurely. With that reading, the song becomes infinitely sadder and infinitely more uplifting. Sadder in the story of the song, for the man who denied himself the “closing passage,” but more uplifting for the listener, to whom Beam shows the flickering shadow of the light at the end of the tunnel.

Believe me, I’d give anything to ask Beam if I’m right. But maybe it’s better that I don’t. The attraction of great poetry is what I alluded to before; it lets the listener add his own life and history to the words. And it’s not that everything is relative, or that there aren’t deeper indisputable truths; it’s just that great artists bring you into the experience, because it’s so emotionally engaging that you can’t remain an unbiased observer. Regardless of whether I’m right or wrong, I have a feeling Beam would be glad the lyrics made me consider.

Beam touched on this idea in another interview, with FaceCulture, when asked about his song “Tree by the River.” “It was really difficult to come up with things that didn’t feel corny because they were only important to those two people,” he said. “You had to come up with images that outsiders listening to this couple talk about their own memories could relate to. So it took me 10 years to come up with stuff like, ‘I remember the thorns and the roses beneath your window.’ As an outsider, I can relate that to my own life, the good and the bad of my own memories. And even though I don’t understand what happened under their window, I can sort of take something away from it.”

It would be easy to go on and analyze every song on the Unknown Early Sessions, but if you’re not already bored, you would be soon. And as I said before, the experience of listening, and the unbearable sadness of Beam’s work, is relatable only in broad strokes. It’s not something you can discuss intellectually for very long; in the end, music this powerful needs you, vulnerable and immersed.