Just like the way that you ran to wine
when they made the new milk turn
Jesus, a friend in the better times,
let your mother's bible burn
freedom a fever you suffered through,
and the dog drank from your cup
frozen, the river that baptised you,
and the horse died standing up
— Sam Beam, Southern Anthem
Imagine that Nick Drake was born in South Carolina. Imagine that he grew up strong, tall, confident. Imagine that he discovered the guitar and the banjo. Imagine that he moved from South Carolina to Miami, Florida. Imagine that he taught cinematography to students at a college. Imagine that Nick bought a four-track and a laptop, and recorded lo fi tapes. Imagine he sent those tapes to Sub Pop. Imagine Nick's name is Sam Beam, that he calls himself Iron and Wine, and that those tapes became The Creek Drank the Cradle.
If you're like me, the term "country music" makes you immediately nervous. You're no bigot, but—well... "She thinks my tractor's sexy?" Nashville? Dolly Parton, Achy Breaky Heart? It's just unnerving. It's unfair, you realize it. Maybe lately, however, you've become more open-minded about country influences in your music. You've always liked folk music—Nick Drake, Bob Dylan—perhaps you enjoyed the country turns on Beck's morosely picturesque Sea Change, or you appreciated the country spin Ugly Casanova brought to the elastic "Lonesome Crowded West" sound Issac Brock developed with Modest Mouse. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was spectacular, and you like Ryan Adams. You were proud that you got into the bluegrass of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack before it became a bestseller. You like your Johnny Cash cold—cold as a night spent in the gutters down by the railyard. Cold, thank you.
You're primed, open, ready for Iron and Wine to slip through your defenses.
Iron and Wine is the moniker of Floridian Sam Beam, who recorded his debut album "The Creek Drank the Cradle" in his home studio, self-accompanied and solo. In 2002, the album was released on Seattle's Sup Pop label—not one traditionally associated with country, though maybe the Reverend Horton Heat qualifies.
Despite its indie trappings, The Creek Drank the Cradle is a country record—there's no denying it. Slide guitar, banjo, acoustic, lyrics about rusty trains carrying morose narrators to hell. But don't expect any cliches. From the hushed hisses inherent in the record's lo fi origins, to Beam's muted, melancholy amd introspective lyrics delivered by double-tracked harmonizing vocals, this record shimmers with creativity —and, it seems, with prolificacy—Beam originally sent enough material to Sub Pop to fill two albums. "To be honest, I've just been recording these things for years and years, so I just sent them a bunch of stuff, and we sort of pared it down into an album." Beam's lyrics are powerful and beautiful. "Most of the stuff that I write is influenced mostly by poetry," he says: Norman Dubie, Galway Kinnell, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost, though "some of the older ones it's hard for me to sit down with—when I sit down to read some poetry, I usually read more contemporary stuff."
The Creek Drank the Cradle opens with the circular fingerpicking of Lion's Mane, joined by whispered vocals and subtle guitar slide. Its lyrics combine surrealist devotion and lovelorn metaphor: "The rusty gears of morning / and faceless busy phones / we gladly run in circles / but the shape we meant to make / is gone / And love is a tired symphony / you hum when you're awake / and love is a crying baby mama warned you not to shake".
Bird Stealing Bread's loping rhythm backs plaintive but hopeful lyrics of loss. "Tell me, baby, tell me / are you still on the stoop, / watching the windows close?" The guitar climbs slowly up and down the scale. This is one of the most beautiful and emotional moments in an album full of beautiful and emotional moments.
Next the poetry of Faded from the Winter, images of an instant of love, slowed and frozen like sap, the loved one walking "from the timbers / faded from the winter." Ten lines of vivid imagery stretched and overlayed with sliding guitar.
Promising Light strays little from the lovesick melancholy of previous songs. Its lyrics are darker, suggesting regret. "Now I see love"—but all too late? But the speaker can't just withdraw. "Time and all you took / only my freedom to fuck the whole world.
The most bluegrass influenced song on the record, The Rooster Moans spins a tale straight out of country mythology—"serpentine, tracks in flames / longest path the devil laid / led you straight aboard this rusty train," a one-way trip to hell. The banjo melody recalls nothing so much as the chugging of the train itself. "Well, I was picking around with the banjo and came up with little-- I guess you call it a riff. *laughs* I don't know. And it just seemed to fit. It sounded like a train when I do the melody part. It sort of fell into there. But yeah, it catered to a more bluegrass... I don't know what you'd call it."
Upward over the Mountain is the album's centerpiece, an achingly beautiful ode to freedom and the responsibility of aging and leaving home. "Mother I lost it, all of the fear of the lord I was given / Mother forget me now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to." Losing religion, says Beam, "was a big step, I mean, just saying, 'You know, I'm not going to believe that anymore.' That's like a rite of passage in itself for us, I think." The vocals become more hushed, more heartfelt as the song draws toward its all too early close.
Southern Anthem works in concert with "Upward over the Mountain" to make the album's middle section its strongest. Its lyrics are abstract and imagistic, evoking the emotions stirred by a region marred with a history of strife, widespread poverty, and barreness. Sounding more like a tired lament than an anthem, "Southern Anthem" nonetheless soars during its chorus.
Angry Blade is a dirge of loneliness and neglect, with the aching refrain of "Who left you so" drawn out like the voice of an owl. A banjo rings out, as if seen in the light of a campfire by one returning through the woods at night. As if one is interrupting something painfully personal.
Weary Memory, similarly, sounds intensely personal—but more like something played in the morning in a white room. It meditates on the left-behind trappings of a failed relationship. "Found your mittens behind a box of pictures," sings Beam, "a weary memory I can always see," dragging that final word at the end of each stanza into a long, aching, soaring, and sublime crystalized moment.
Promise What You Will has a slower, more deliberate vocal quality, matched by rhythmically strummed acoustic guitar and subtle banjo and slide lines. Again Beam stretches the final "see" into an outpouring of emotion.
The Creek Drank the Cradle's final song, Muddy Hymnal is a tired fable that tells a story of a search for a missing woman, who is found either sleeping or dead, depending on the listener's mood. It's a fitting closer, drawing the album to its weary, beautiful close.
IRON & WINE
The Creek Drank the Cradle
Lion's Mane (2:48) • Bird Stealing Bread (4:20)
Faded from the Winter (3:16) • Promising Light (2:48)
The Rooster Moans (3:23) • Upward over the Mountain (5:45)
Southern Anthem (3:53) • An Angry Blade (3:47)
Weary Memory (4:00) • Promise What You Will (2:22)
Muddy Hymnal (2:44)
All Beam quotes from http://pitchforkmedia.com/interviews/i/iron-and-wine-02/. Thanks Pitchfork!