Man, if my middle school student activities coordinator had booked Iron & Wine to play my formal dance I’d have been pissed! Can you imagine the heckling? Although it’s funny to think about Sam Beam covering “What I Like about You” and “Careless Whisper.” Actually, I bet he’d do a pretty good “Careless Whisper.” Or maybe not. Anyway…
“Bitter Truth,” as the title suggests, is my favorite kind of breakup song: bitter. Or as the chorus calls it, “getting even in a song.”
I kept reading hidden meanings
You would rage how I was wrong
That life was too short, and you’d stayed too long
Let’s be honest, we were strongest
Until I let you drag me down
I was sorry then, I’m not now
Relationships are complicated. And that’s true whether you’re a middle aged man or a middle school tween.
Director Hannah Welever told Billboard: “I think there’s something really poetic about how we deal with our emotions at different ages. Using the song as a backbone, we were able to revisit this window of time full of excitement and wonder, and compare it to a more pragmatic present-day self. Relationships evolve and shift constantly and I find that to be such a ubiquitous, human characteristic I find in Sam’s music.”
Do you miss the old Iron & Wine? When it was pretty much just Sam Beam and a guitar? Before he got all into world music or whatever the hell he’s been doing for the past ten years? You’re in luck! Beam says, “I feel there’s a certain kinship between this new collection of songs and my earliest material.”
Well, this new song isn’t as stripped down as The Creek Drank the Cradle but it’s closer to Our Endless Numbered Days than anything since then. And that’s a good direction. With optimistic lyrics and acoustic instrumentation, it’s easily the best Iron & Wine song I’ve heard in a decade. Plus, I’m a sucker for the sentiment of reminding folks to let your loved ones know you care about them before they die.
And we get a chance to say
Before we ease away
For all the love you’ve left behind,
You can have mine
Friday night was a fun bonus, but the real festival started on Saturday. That’s when the place filled up with perfectly unkempt indie kids, all the vendors were in full effect, and they kept scruffs like me out of the VIP section.
The importance of the weather cannot be overstated. When it’s hot as balls like it had been for the previous two Fork Fests, it becomes hard to drink the Goose Island beer and revolting to get too close to other sweaty people. When it’s over 100 and humid as hell, you need an American-style light lager. In fact, you need a lot of them. And you have to wear shorts even if your legs are pasty.
But when it’s mid-70s and breezy, you can wear jeans if you want, you can drink good beer, and you can work your way through a thick crowd occasionally bumping into a scantily clad young person without immediately being covered in stank. You can even eat Chipotle. Why not?
Lollapalooza is a funny event. There’s a lot of history around it, culturally and personally. I attended the first year’s Lollapalooza 15 years ago with a car load of my college pals, and I’m proud to say I’m still in touch with all of that original posse. We’re spread out across the globe now, but thanks to the internet we know who’s living where, who’s changing careers, buying houses, all that. Lollapalooza was a crazy idea back then, a strange celebration of (some of) the music we liked and the politics we were thinking about. Or something… Anyway, it felt like our thing in all its early-90s, pre-internet, slacker glory.
I went the next year, too, this time with my girlfriend. The highlight of the second Lollapalooza, for me, was Ice Cube. Although I remember being annoyed by the abbreviated versions of songs and all the “wave your hands in the air” crap (which was a huge hip-hop cliche even way back then!), it was still exciting to see my favorite rapper in person. My girlfriend was excited about Lush and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The headliner that year was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band I didn’t care for even though Anthony Keidis is from my hometown. We both agreed they put on a good show, though, with the fire shooting out of their helmets and all.
Fast-forward fourteen years. That girlfriend is now my wife. And Lollapalooza no longer feels like our generation’s thing anymore. It’s not just that we’ve got about a decade on the age of the average attendee. There were plenty other people our age (and older, believe it or not), but there was a different vibe. Maybe it’s all the shirtless dudes. Maybe it’s the crass corporate branding on every possible surface. Who knows? It was still fun, and there were lots of great bands, and it’s cool that it takes place in my city so I can just take the El home at night. But is Lollapalooza any different than Coachella or Bonnaroo now? Does it have its own personality? Or is it just another victim of our cultural homogenization?
One other circumstance that might have affected my attitude, even when compared to last year, is that my wife is currently expecting our first child, a boy, and that seems to make you look at everything a little differently. And while I don’t necessarily want to be one of those dads who’s always deliberately pushing his own unfulfilled dreams onto his kid regardless of the kid’s interests, I’ve got to admit that since the cochlear structures of the fetal ear have developed, he’s already been exposed to several cool shows: Tom Jones and Etta James at Ravinia, the Mountain Goats, Art Brut, Mission of Burma, and Yo La Tengo at Pitchfork. The baby seemed to be pretty chill at those previous shows, but he expressed some strong opinions at Lollapalooza. For example, he hates the Dresden Dolls. And even though he let us know he didn’t appreciate Lady Sovereign’s warm-up deejay, he did enjoy Blackalicious quite a bit, particularly his freestyle.
What follows will be my take on sets I caught at Lollapalooza this year as well as the reaction expressed by another music fan in utero as measured by number of kicks…
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.