The first Iron & Wine album I listened to was the 2005 EP, Woman King. It quickly hooked me with its boisterous tempos, knifing sliding guitar, and dark religious undertones. Personally for me, Woman King became the fulcrum in his oeuvre. Going one way, there was the textually rich, fuller-sounding band of his later work. Going the other, there was the sound with which Beam made his name, getting signed up by Sub Pop in the process.
The Archive Series: Vol. 1 goes further back than the latter. This was music recorded for music’s sake, intended for no one more than his family, before Iron & Wine was used as a moniker. Imagine a younger Sam Beam, full-time film teacher, singing quietly into a four-track recorder, with nary a clue of what his little hobby would turn into. Like debut album The Creek Drank the Cradle, there is modest equipment: a guitar, a slide, a banjo, and his voice. No drums of course—on the song Judgement, the percussion sounds more like hand slaps on furniture lying around the house: a coffee table, a hardcover book, maybe the denim of his jeans.
Of course, it’s the words that play center stage. Personal highlights include Eden, showcasing Beam’s early preoccupations with Christianity. The story of the eponymous garden is reimagined with Iron & Wine’s classic tempered wit. Primordial desires rule apparently, as there’s no mention of the apple, but Adam is tempted anyway: “As God will be my judge / I’m not the man I was / before I found you lying in the garden / Let’s go buy some clothes / some wool socks for your toes / cause it might be much colder in the morning.”
In Beyond The Fence, there’s the slide and fingerpicked guitar and the accompaniment of presumably Sarah Beam, who has contributed vocals on other songs throughout Beam’s career. He has always managed to paint pictures of a vast Americana through a song. This song tackles the destitution and bleakness of the mundane life of man whose age is expertly rendered through images like “Two flat tires on a Model T”. As usual, Beam doesn’t have to resort to rom-com clichés to sing about the power of love. In the chorus, he sings “The moon is high / Your nose is burned / Your dog is gone / Your mouth is dry / The milk is turned / But Barbara’s home.” The stuff of life that’s enough to make you call it quits is juxtaposed against the one fact to overrule them all: Take a deep breath, life is going to be okay. After the second chorus, Beam lets his guitar do the talking, bass lines and arpeggios climbing upward in hope.
It’s too hard to call any of these songs “filler” or even as inferior to the home-recorded songs that were actually selected for The Creek. Despite the low production, they each have so much lyrical substance in them that I’m amazed Beam didn’t choose to incorporate them into an album with his contemporary sound. The Archive Series: Vol. 1 is a mind-boggling peek into the mind of an artist bursting at the seams with songs to sing and will be a welcome addition for any fan.
Iron & Wine’s The Archive Series Volume No. 1 will be released February 24 via Black Cricket Recording Co.