Iron and Wine

Woman King EP

(Sub Pop; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 30 December 2007

The mail delivery system in and around Washington, DC is inexplicable. One week everything works fine, the next you don’t see any mail whatsoever. Not even that Sub Pop package you’re waiting on because you have an interview with Sam Beam on Wednesday and you refuse to illegally download the new EP. So thanks, DC mail system, for forcing me to go into the interview blind and shoot around in the dark and spit out something like, "how does your new EP, Woman King, differ from the Our Endless Numbered Days stuff?" because I was, simply, mortally curious.

If you want to read what Sam said, the interview is here. For now, though, I'll just answer the question as he should have answered it: Beam: “Well, Peter, Woman King is what happens when I get annoyed at lazy critics telling me that all my songs sound the same and that I’m nothing more than some Will Oldham boot-licker.”

Yes, that’s right. This isn’t your granddad’s Iron & Wine. This is an Iron & Wine you’ve never heard before: louder, playful, more than just a solo musician, not derivative in the least, and flat-out fantastic. In fact, it may very well be the best we’ve heard from Sam Beam and Co. yet.

In his CMG interview, Beam made it clear that one element of the EP that he especially enjoyed was the use of more “playful” percussion. I didn’t have a clue what he meant. All his previous releases (both albums and the excellent The Sea & the Rhythm EP) had used relatively simple percussion patterns and none had strayed too far from the mold or had really held their own against Beam’s vocals (not that anything in the mix really had, with the possible exception of the acoustic guitar). Woman King blows this mold wide open. Yes, the percussion is clearly the greatest step forward, but all elements of the band really come together: we get violins, electric guitars, more banjo, stronger bass rhythms, and more of Sarah Beam’s ethereal backing vocals.

The title track immediately draws the listener in with a sparse, insistent drum line that matches up to a lightly plucked acoustic guitar. Sam and Sarah sing in tandem, complementing the song’s two-guitar approach. The breakdown mid way through is fantastic, letting Beam ride as the drum line is forced down in the mix. The whole song is wonderfully dark and foreboding.

Then we get “Jezebel,” an older song, and easily one of Beam’s best. The incarnation here is especially gorgeous, falling back into standard Iron & Wine format, albeit more fleshed out. The song enters with a lightly plucked melody that is elaborated on throughout the song. Sam’s vocals are remarkably confident here and Sarah’s backing “ooh’s” and “aah’s” are breathtaking. Sam’s recasting of Jezebel as the object of his affection is startling, if only for the power of the love song. When the instrumentation cuts back and Beam sings, “Who's seen Jezebel? / Will the mountain last / as long as I can wait? / Wait like the dawn how / it aches to meet the day,” over nothing but a few plucked strings, the moment is nothing short of perfect.

“Grey Stables” isn’t as immediately impressive, but it again allows for the band as a whole, rather than just Beam, to show off its collective stuff. “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven” is a return to religious material with an ode to Mary that is startling in both its complexity and lyrics. The drums are all over the place, there’s a banjo solo, a piano line, quick guitars, and Beam’s vocals are tight and controlled. Even the instrumental breakdown at the end works wonderfully, as you get a real feeling of cohesion between the band members.

Treading back into whisper-singing, “My Lady’s House” again stands up to anything in Beam’s discography. The shuffling drums and bells contrast with the simple guitar line, and the whole is offset by a gorgeous piano line that is eventually replaced with a piping organ. Beam’s lyrics contain the same humanity that made his original bedroom recordings so moving. “Thank God you see me the way you do / strange as you are to me” he sings, enunciating that universal feeling of gratitude for receiving a love not fully understood.

The EP closes with the blaring “Evening on the Ground.” Beam shifts quiet-loud with his lyrics as the drums veer off in a million different directions at once, accompanied by an army of guitars and banjos plucking their way over the top. The instrumental section between verses alternates a violin with a vicious electric guitar. The song is huge, impassioned, and its conviction is marked by such shockingly non-Iron & Wine lines as, “we were born to fuck each other one way or another.”

During our interview, Beam mentioned that he would be touring with a five or six piece band this spring. Up until this release, the thought of Beam on stage with six other musicians would have been a head-scratcher - what would they all do during a Creek Drank the Cradle set? Tune his guitars? Make sure the beard remains well kempt? With Woman King Beam fills out his sound while keeping his core soulfulness and charisma intact, and it will be quite the experience to see how his new approach to songwriting reflects back on his older material in the live setting.

If Our Endless Numbered Days was the end to the Sam Beam of the bedroom recording, then Woman King signals an even more dangerous move for those who treasure their copies of Creek. Woman King is the sound of Iron & Wine becoming a band; the sound of a singer-songwriter taking that all-important step forward; the sound of a group refusing to slip into the trap of staleness and homogeneity. It is also the sound of greatness, and I have no doubt that Woman King may come to be regarded as Iron & Wine’s finest work. For now it just stands as one of this year’s most startlingly original and beautiful releases, which isn’t such a bad place to be.