After diverting his attention from Iron & Wine to two side projects (one with Ben Bridwell and one with Jesca Hoop), Sam Beam has returned to the sound he’s best known for after a four-year hiatus. When Beast Epic was announced in June, Beam said that “the ferris wheel [of time] keeps spinning and we’re constantly approaching, leaving or returning to something totally unexpected or startlingly familiar.” That circularity is evident on the album, but not always to its benefit.
Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic calls for near-silence: far more dimensional when given focus, the album could be tossed aside as “easy listening” otherwise, which would be a shame. But that a folk album calls for close attention so a listener may recognize its nuance, however, is its own shame. Beast Epic is a cohesive album, but consequently many of the songs blend into one another, refusing the spotlight.
In opening track “Claim Your Ghost,” Beam sings “our music is clumsy and free,” but the same couldn’t be said of the album—it’s far from clumsy. The songs are deliberate, and feel less live than on previous records. They’re tight and mostly riskless. Gone are the whispers from Our Endless Numbered Days, and with them, a certain degree of tenderness and intimacy. All the same, “Bitter Truth” is an instant folk classic, so much so that I originally thought it was a cover of an old folk song; I had to look up that it wasn’t pulled from the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack. The meandering track, with its stretched vowels, feels both familiar and comforting.
There’s an undercurrent of movement throughout Beast Epic, perhaps in the sense that folk music often soundtracks travel scenes in film. The songs burst, push forward, and most are several degrees more positive than his previous work. For all the ballads, there are upbeat songs to balance. At 43, Beam is comfortable now; the work is cohesive, thoughtful. But you lose a little bit of vulnerability when there’s such cohesion, some of the softness that made a song like “Fever Dream” engrossing. His voice is beautiful as ever, but it seems further away.
Beast Epic is a comforting listen that showcases Beam’s ability to return to his Iron & Wine roots, to his folk singer-songwriter background, and to do so deftly. It won’t shock or surprise you save some wonderful moments—some songs may even blend together when you’re not looking—but it’ll be, as folk often is, a good soundtrack behind a bigger action.