"No one is the savior they would like to be," Sam Beam laments on "Lovesong of the Buzzard" from his new, much-lauded album, The Shepherd's Dog.
A certain spiritual longing exists deep within the songs Beam—who records under the name Iron & Wine—so carefully crafts out of vivid imagery, striking lyricism, and thoughtful arrangements. Throughout The Shepherd's Dog, Beam uses religious symbolism (wings, smoke), raw elements (bones, ashes), and of course the unspeakable power of sound to beautifully contemplate human existence and beyond.
"In our days, we will say what our ghosts will say/We gave the world what it saw fit, and what'd we get?" asks Beam on the hushed "Resurrection Fern." "Like stubborn boys with big green eyes, we'll see everything/in the timid shade of the autumn leaves and the buzzard's wing."
Beam is not simply a singer. He is not just a guitarist. Not simply a songwriter. Beam is an artist. Music just happens to be his channel of choice. With chords for a medium, Beam plunges to the core of what it means to be alive. "I want to write something that seems true in a certain way, and that's what I understand," Beam recently told the music website Pitchfork. "I try to write human songs or human experience [songs]."
Beam has been pondering the human experience through bare-boned folk song since Iron & Wine debuted with The Creek Drank the Cradle in 2002. He followed the first album with 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days, 2005's The Woman King EP, and, again in '05, an incredible EP collaboration with Calexico called In the Reins.
The Shepherd's Dog is Beam's fullest album to date. His arrangements have grown from the wispy, barren feel of voice and guitar to an expanded palette that includes dub, blues, and West African instrumentation. Beam's love for minimal, traditional folk music remains, but this time around it's decorated by lush percussion and dense grooves.
A trained screenwriter, Beam coalesces picturesque scenes made of raspberry scents and dogwood trees with intriguing lines like, "The postman cried while reading the mail" for songs that bleed raw life. "I've been making the meaning they lack," Beam proclaims in "House by the Sea," a creaky, bluesy cut whose narrator could easily be a higher being. "And I've been burning that book they come back to."
Among smoke swirls, black valleys, old bones, chapel bells, and begging eyes (open and shut), Beam takes his listeners to a dreamy, dreary world on the verge of slipping away. He wonders about God, about childhood, about the Devil, about the weeds that grow tall and the birds that can't fly and the soldiers that never come home. Immersed in instrumentation warm like cotton fuzz against the skin and soft like morning light bending against the home, The Shepherd's Dog is as free as it is broken, easy as it is hard.
"I wanted to make these layers of entertainment where you could listen in one sitting and maybe pay attention to the lyrics and get something from that," Beam recently said on NPR's World Café radio show, "otherwise you could get something from the music and all little textural things."
Whatever you choose to take from Iron & Wine, it's destined to move you to take more.