Iron and Wine

Our Endless Numbered Days

(Sub Pop; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 23 March 2004

Samuel Beam, the man behind the strikingly apposite moniker Iron & Wine, quickly went from being a University professor and songwriting hobbyist to one of the more critically acclaimed indie singer/songwriters of 2002. All thanks to the release of his debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle -- a gorgeous, albeit slightly monotonous, collection of autumnal lo-fi folk that landed somewhere between Simon & Garfunkel, the Shins and traditional bluegrass. Now, just two years later, Beam has -- like many lo-fi singer/songwriters at some point (most recently, John Darnielle and Devendra Banhart come to mind) -- shed the safe confines of his bedroom and headed into a studio to give his new material a cleaner and slightly more developed sound.

Despite the studio treatment, Beam's songwriting and voice -- still in all its throaty, whispered glory -- remain pretty much the same. Sounding like death itself awaits him with the impending end of each song, his voice remains a little less than "excited," to say the least, but I suppose an obnoxious, confident tone would sound egregious against a set of lightly finger-picked Nick Drake-ish ballads -- another singer who's voice was often just loud enough to expel the breath from his mouth. But as much as we often wish artists would stick to what they're good at it, I can't fault Beam for sticking to what has been a successful mould; which is to say that if you were a fan of his style on Creek or last year's excellent Sea and Rhythm EP (which was basically just five more tracks from the same sessions that compromised Creek; you can find most all of the sessions online, as many were shared around as a fake version of this record for quite some time), you won't find many surprises here.

Well, except maybe if you were expecting Beam to fill his sophomore effort with the same calibre of songwriting as his debut. Though certainly not a fundamental shift in his approach, a good deal of these songs -- like "Cinder and Smoke," "Free Until They Cut Me Down" (the album's most "upbeat" cut, though it's far too repetitious to make its pseudo-groove work), "Teeth in the Grass," "Sunset and Soon Forgotten" and "Fever Dream" -- are nice enough when they're on, but to recall their melodies after they're over is like trying to remember specific images in a dream that was just far too oblique and vague to stand out.

There are exceptions, of course. "Each Coming Night," an understated romantic lullaby, is very possibly Beam's best song to date and easily the most lyrically devastating cut on the album. "On Your Wings" makes for one of the more interesting uses of the studio setting with its double-harmony guitar lines. "Love And Some Verses," calling to mind the "love is. . ." lyrical refrain of Cradle's incredible opener "Lion's Mane," incorporates a lovely slide guitar (catchier than most vocal melodies you'll hear this year) and lightly-brushed percussion to offer a much needed variety to alleviate the kind of ad nauseum repetition that has plagued his work.

"Naked As We Came" is another of the album's standouts, propelled by Beam's bittersweet lyrics which, like the majority of the record, conjure images of love and death with an oddly romantic undertone; "I lay smiling like our sleeping children/ one of us will die inside these arms." Closing pair "Sodom, South Georgia" (featuring one of the album's best lyrics with its refrain of "Papa died Sunday and I understood/ all dead white boys say God is good") and "Passing Afternoon" are also up there with Beam's best material, offering the kind of sharp melodies (the latter of which resembles the sparse "Radio War," which opens the record's second half) that a good deal of these songs lack.

It's hard to deny that nearly all of these songs are good, but unlike the pronounced melodies that saved Creek Drank the Cradle from being a victim of its aesthetic, a little too much of this record flows into a seamless, uniform mould. Our Endless Numbered Days is consistently and thoroughly beautiful -- just as we've come to expect of Beam's work -- but only seldomly memorable.