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Iron and Wine - The Sea & The Rhythm

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Artist: Iron and Wine

Album: The Sea & The Rhythm

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Oct. 5, 2003

I used to think that Sam Beam’s first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, came ready-made for inclusion in an updated version of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, but I’ve come to reconsider that opinion after listening to The Sea & The Rhythm. I do not mean that as a reflection on the quality of The Sea & The Rhythm; the five songs on the EP were drawn from the same batch of tapes that Beam sent Sub Pop for The Creek Drank the Cradle and they are almost uniformly very good. I mean instead that thinking of Iron & Wine as just a modern take on folk – a venerable American genre celebrated for its simplicity, storytelling, and proliferation among grassroots bands would ignore the complexity of his recordings.

The fact that Beam records on a four-track at home is misleading; it might cause someone to think that he doesn’t care what the song sounds like, so long as its committed to tape. That could not be further from the truth, or at least the final product doesn’t reveal that indifference, Beam’s songs are impeccably mixed: multiple-track recordings of his hushed singing voice are layered one over the other to create an echo alternately gentle and devastating; guitar appreggios run into one another, Bedhead-style, creating a lush, symphonic texture. The low-fi recording process is not an aesthetic dodge; it’s rather the perfect way of accentuating the shopworn, traditional themes – love and loss, honor, redemption, and fidelity – that the songs explore. That the songs do not demand much of a production budget does not mean that they are not well produced nonetheless.

The pastoral imagery that marked many of the songs on The Creek Drank the Cradle is largely absent from the songs on The Sea & The Rhythm. The material here most closely resembles the second person pleading of “Promising Light.” The topics are personal, and the back-story, or whatever we can tease out about it, is tortuous. “Beneath the Balcony,” “The Night Descending” and “Jesus the Mexican Boy” all consider a world fallen from grace – the first two in general, the last in particular. The narrator of “Beneath the Balcony” walks out to find “a hero begging change / his sword across his knees,” and alternately, “the holy mother begging change, Christ across her knees.” That kind of morally ambiguous world is considered again in “The Night Descending,” whose lyrics ponder the many ways in which the rationales and motivations of others are either unknowable or irrelevant in a world so overwhelmed with suffering that our actions seem to lack consequences anyway. “Jesus the Mexican Boy” offers a more personal take: an episodic tale, this song’s thinly veiled religious allegory posits a friend as a modern messiah who, in Beam’s words, holds out the hope of, “hiding the most unholy things I’d do.”

That offer of private redemption is really the message of the two remaining songs: if we are troubled by the state of the world – vague as that may be – we can at least look for solace in other people. Beam is particularly good at discussing love without the usual clichés: “tonight we’re the sea and the rhythm,” he sings on the album’s title track, duplicating in his own relationship the harmony to be found in the natural world. The closing “Someday the Waves” once again uses the imagery of the ocean, but as an expression of devotion rather than unity: “someday the waves will stop / every aching / old machine will feel no pain / someday we both will walk / where a baby / made tomorrow is again.” As pledges of fidelity go, there are few more direct than “you pick a place / that’s where I’ll be.”

Obviously this kind of thing could get very tiresome very quickly. The presentation of it is crucial, however, and Beam is to be praised for avoiding the excesses of singer-songwriter poetry. The music does more than just provide a template for the lyrics – it heightens the emotionally significant moments and softens the rough edges of the lyrics. Listening to The Sea & The Rhythm is never a chore, then, nor is it an exercise in moral rectitude. It is rather the experience of listening to a more thoughtful, reflective, and beautifully constructed contribution to a uniquely American genre.

By Tom Zimpleman

Other Reviews of Iron and Wine

The Creek Drank the Cradle

Our Endless Numbered Days

The Shepherd's Dog

Around the Well

Kiss Each Other Clean

Read More

View all articles by Tom Zimpleman

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