I first encountered Iron & Wine on the soundtrack to Garden State, where Sam Beam's cover of "Such Great Heights" caught and stuck in my memory. The simple combination of a folk guitar and a soothing voice grew infinitely more complex with each listen. Harmonies and melodies intertwined to create a sound that is lush but calming, fulfilling and relaxing. I had to have more. And so, armed with $12.99 plus tax, I ventured into Best Buy and bought my very own copy of Iron & Wine's second album, Our Endless Numbered Days.
The cover of the album reflects the quiet dignity of the music inside, a VanGogh-esque portrait of the artist himself. The follow-up to a home-based debut project, Our Endless is a beautiful compilation of thoughtful songs that perfectly fit any intimate or reflective mood you have. The album was released in May 2004 to a primarily indie audience courtesy of the Sub Pop label.
On Your Wings "How we rise when we’re born like the ravens in the corn"
The opening song on the album, On Your Wings is soft but funky, a marriage of plucky guitar and hushed vocals that speak to God. In a strange way, the introduction to the song reminds me of American Beauty. Buy the record; you'll see what I mean.
Naked As We Came "One of us will die inside these arms, eyes wide open, naked as we came"
At first listen, this track sounds happy if not relaxing, like a Sunday drive or a tumble in the grass. Pay attention to the lyrics, though, and we're talking about death. Focus on the meaning, though, and we're back to happy; Sam Beam is describing a happy life and family, conceding that to spend your lives together means someone has to die in the other's arms.
Cinder And Smoke "You’ll ask me to pray for rain. With ash in your mouth, you’ll ask it to burn again"
The guitar trots under melancholy lyrics that detail the burning of a family's farmhouse. I'm not sure that this is an unhappy event, however, as the girl Beam sings to is being released from whatever held her there. There is a somber undertone to this song and a breathy chorus that mimics the sound of panting, as if from panic.
Sunset And Soon Forgotten "Be this sunset one for keeping. This june bug street sings low and lovely" With natural transition our spirits are returned with "Sunset and Soon Forgotten," a whimsical ballad that brings back childhood memories. It nearly twangs in certain sections, though Sam Beam's voice remains as light and clear as ever.
Teeth In The Grass "And when we’re lovers at last, fresh air, perfume in your nose--there will be teeth in the grass"
This track has an almost Western feel to it; his fingers sliding over the strings of the guitar match the tone perfectly. It sounds a bit like a round-up or a dusty blues song more than folk/indie.
Love And Some Verses "Love is a dress that you made long to hide your knees"
The drums are actually noticeable in this track, joining with the guitar to create a swaying percussion that defines the mood more plainly than the lyrics can. We've remained upbeat through several songs and this one is rather romantic compared to others on the album.
Radio War "All the while that she wept, she had a gun by her bed and a letter he wrote from a dry, foundered boat"
By far the most melancholy track on the album, "Radio War" acheives an antiquated sound reminiscent of colonial folk music. The guitar is strummed as a harp, though the vocals maintain a full harmony in direct contrast to the somewhat tinny sound of the instruments.
Each Coming Night "Will you say to me when I'm gone, "Your face has faded but lingers on'"
If many of the other songs on this cd are mostly treble, this one is definitely bass. Exploring the lower range of his voice, Sam Beam uses the hushed whispers he's known for throughout each verse but, in the chorus, hits a lower octave that mirrors the sound of bass in the background. It sounds almost as if he's strumming his vocal chords but is quickly replaced with a deep, lazy hum.
Free Until They Cut Me Down"When the wind wraps me like the reaper’s hand, I will swing free until they cut me down"
One of the rockier tracks on Our Endless, "Free Until They Cut Me Down" is one of my favorites. It reminds me of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, sophisticated but earthy. The lyrics speak for themselves and paint a brilliant, if not dark, picture of a man punished for doing the right thing.
Fever Dream "Sometimes I’ll hear, when she’s sleeping, her fever dream, a language on her face"
Beautiful. Absolutely striking. By far the prettiest song on the album, "Fever Dream" strikes a chord with me. Its sound is sugary, almost crystal-like, but in a melancholy way. The result is a quiet joy that nearly hurts, the feeling of a moment that you don't want to end. I wouldn't be surprised to find this song on the soundtrack of a tasteful movie.
Sodom, South Georgia "And Sodom, South Georgia slept on an acre of bones, slept through Christmas, slept like a bucket of snow"
Fun to say or sing along with, "Sodom, South Georgia" carries extended vocals as sleepy as the town they describe. The tune is catchy; the lyrics easy to remember. This track describes Beam's hometown and the death of his father, an intimate story that uses the medium of soft rock effortlessly.
Passing Afternoon "There are things that drift away like our endless, numbered days"
While there is no title track on the album, this song mentions the title lyric. The culminating piece of Our Endless, Numbered Days, "Passing Afternoon" swells upon itself in a peace-inspiring crescendo. All other tracks on the album seem to be explained in this one, where our singer reflects upon the passage of time and seasons, and how our lives inevitably follow the same pattern as all other things in nature.
As the title suggests, Our Endless Numbered Days addresses the theme of life and death from the perspective of one who is happily enjoying his time among us. If there is such a thing as melancholic joy, Sam Beam has acheived it with this Iron & Wine project. The album jacket lists a small group of performers who have contributed on the album, including Sarah Beam (his sister), Jonathan Bradley, Brian Deck, EJ Holowicki, Jeff McGriff, and Patrick McKinney. Doubtless it is the close work of such a small group of people that have helped this album achieve its familiar, intimate sound. Our Endless Numbered Days is a must-have for any music lover in need of some quiet, reflective tunes that are good for the soul.
Some fact-checking from allmusic.com