Doesn’t Sam Beam seem like the type of guy you’d want to hug? The beard, the soft sway of “Fever Dream” and his other starlit classics, and the graceful touch of his finger-picking right hand have painted the teddy-bear imagery that comes to mind each time Iron & Wine is brought into conversation. But with each passing album and accompanying EP, Beam has added greater variation to his brand of supple folk; incorporating more instrumentation, stepping away from the brittle production that marked his debut The Creek Drank the Cradle, and varying the tempo from his sedated earlier work. On last year’s Our Endless, Numbered Days it meant opening the album alternating his typically effervescent balladry with some dirty swampland blues before gently giving way back to the stuff that brought Iron & Wine to such great feature-film-soundtrack heights and constant celebration from fans and critics.
Woman King, his latest six-song EP, saves the soft stuff for only two tracks. The rest of the EP furthers the image of the newly, dare we say reckless Beam, who lets wood blocks collide, electric guitars buzz, and sluggish energy boil below the surface of his tranquil voice, which despite the chaos, never loses its trademark intimacy. And though “Grey Stables” would have perhaps benefited from being sung in a lower register, the rest of the EP features Beam at his best vocally, actually sounding aggressive and confident for the first time on “Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song).”
Still, Beam is best when he’s singing ballads through his pillow; the serious lack of Beam-as-romantic takes Woman King down a small peg. But “In My Lady’s House” and “Jezebel” are striking, showing a dedication to introducing more flesh and depth into all of his work without losing the soothing tone of his catalogue to date. The ascension of Beam’s voice on the word “be” at the end of the chorus to “In My Lady’s House” is a small example of the subtle evolution his songwriting has undergone—from standard bearded-bedroom-wisp to Generation Sedated’s answer to the glut of singers that embodied the early-70’s folk boom, Sam Beam has become the most promising revivalist of that very movement.
While not a concrete step, the chromatic nature of Beam’s work indicates that Woman King is prophetic in determining what to expect from his next full-length. The redemptive dogmatism that has provided the lyrical inspiration of most of his early work has caused a virile stir in these arrangements. Which proves, after all this time, that the oppressive heat of the South breaks through the holes of Iron & Wine’s cocoon, after all.
You can download “Woman King” from Subpop.