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Beast Epic (Sub Pop/Inertia)

Sam Beam sans the psych touches, rock elements, electronica and brass ala soul classics which had come to populate the recordings of Iron & Wine sounds like, well, the way Sam Beam used to sound way, way – ok, five albums – back.

Think intimate to the point of sometimes suggesting solitariness, but not easily described as sombre. Think quiet of voice and instrument, without being stripped back to bare bones. Think (mellow) country and (low-fi) folk and (singer/songwriter) pop, without planting a flag determinedly in any one place.

Think, actually, of some of David Bridie’s solo albums, of some of the less tortured parts of Gene Clark, of Holly Throsby telling stories from the passenger side on the Hume Highway.

Does this make for a backward step for Iron & Wine? Only if you think progress is only ever measured forwards. I’m happier going with Beam’s own description of life or time being more like a “ferris wheel [which] keep spinning and we are constantly approaching, leaving or returning to something totally unexpected or startlingly familiar”.

If this album sounds like the earliest Iron & Wine – and while true, even that comparison must acknowledge that though the overall richness of sound here is subtly deployed it is a step up from those first recordings - it also feels like a more seasoned Beam, as man and songwriter.

Beast Epic has love and observation, people who huddle in and need comfort and those who live by the river and don’t need a story told. It has absence and need and hurt too.

But what it doesn’t have is pain as the arbiter, the definer. You can listen to these songs and understand the slow turns of good and bad without getting the sense that the characters have been crushed by one or a naturally raised by the other. Or indeed that either condition is permanent.

At least as much as Beam’s gentle-on-my-mind voice, it is this emotional/philosophical overlay, represented through the small movements of the drums, the slow rising of the organ, the pick-and-stick acoustic guitars, that makes Beast Epic the utter pleasure it is to experience.

Frankly I could listen to three minutes of The Truest Stars We Know on repeat for a good half hour and not complain. Not that I need to when the ferris wheel brings another lovely song, another lovely song after that and then one of the earlier lovely songs past.

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