“So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten,
Sons are like birds flying upwards over the mountain.”

~Upward Over the Mountain
Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle

Tonight all the sounds are waifish and delicate. Tonight all the world is patient and forgiving.

I was pleased to find the new collection of songs from Iron & Wine, beautiful archived tracks from “The Creek Drank the Cradle” era, which led me to listen to that still-remarkable 13-year old debut. Maybe it is the snow, maybe it is the stillness, maybe it is the stiff dirty strings that give me something to do with my hands, but the softness of acoustic songwriting is lately the warmest blanket I can find these nights.

On this record, songs of simple structure and folk storytelling do not demand much attention to figure out, but the payoff is great. Sam Beam has an iconic voice ripped from centuries ago, his verbiage is charmed and weary, and strings, strings, strings, nothing but strings, are focused in the expanse of the story. I remember hearing these songs back when, I remember being impressed, but it wasn’t until probably five or six years ago that I really got into the Iron & Wine catalog, and only in this moment have I taken the time since to go back to where it all began.

These songs of lovers and children and religion and seasons do not tread any new ground for folk music, I would say, other than capturing its essence in an era when such tropes were merely floating at the edges of the mainstream pond (instead of flooding it, as they sometimes do now). Most live in the same chord structure, but this is part of what makes them so good, how spin the old familiar wheel so well. “Lion’s Mane” is instantly the most recognizable and exemplary of Beam’s image. “Upward Over the Mountain” is perhaps the most classic and easily the most heart-stopping and beautiful and I do not think I have ever heard this song without crying or at least wanting to. Beam’s guitar and composition style has some shining moments, like the outro on “Upward” or the extended solo on “Faded From the Winter.” To listen to later songs, like those on the so-so-successful but rather interesting “Kiss Each Other Clean,” you can hear the threads beginning here. 

With the release of his archived tracks instead of newer recordings, the Iron & Wine fan base may wind up being more grateful for the return to this former sound than they are apt to care about when they were recorded. I’ve found them incredibly lovely, perhaps a little more seasoned and private, somehow, than the tracks we’ve become familiar with and maybe that is only because they were locked away so long. I think there is a lesson for artists here, about how sharing your work simply because it is done doesn’t mean that is the right moment for the world to hear it. So too is there a lesson in songs this patient with themselves, that whatever we mean to say may be said best with little adornment and kept close, kept private, like whispered little words on winter nights.

“Time and all you gave,
I was a jerk who preferred the sea
To tussling in the waves
Tugging your skirt singing “please, please, please.”

Now I see love
Dragged on the floor where you walked outside,

Now I seek love
Looking for you in this other girl’s eyes.

Time and all you took
Only my freedom to fuck the whole world,
Promising not to look
Promising light on the sidewalk girls.

Now I see love
There in your car where I said those things.
Now I see love,
Tugging your skirt singing “please, please, please.”

Time and all you gave
There on your cross that I never saw
Well beyond the waves
Dunking my head when I heard you call.

Now I see love,
There in the scab where you pinched my leg
Now I see love,
There on your side of my empty bed.

~Promising Light 
Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle