Iron and Wine - "The Trapeze Swinger" (Around the Well)
Imagine an Iron & Wine covers album. That’s not what Around the Well is, but it’s the first interesting thought it inspires: Sam Beam doesn’t interpret songs so much as haunt them. He turns Stereolab’s excitable “Peng!” into a lullaby, sets the phantom context of New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” back about a century, and makes the Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman” into a spiritual so simple and credulous it’s a little spooky. At his quiet insistence, other people’s songs become his stories, slanted beyond any slant we’re familiar with.
Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever succeeded in the converse, in transposing an Iron & Wine song out of the temperament in which Beam created it. His imagined world is older, fuller and sweeter – even his murder ballads are sweet – than that of his contemporaries and most of his influences. (John Darnielle, Elliott Smith, and Bill Callahan don’t pull off oblique in the same way; even Nick Drake was too twentieth century.) The persistent Faulkner comparison is apt not stylistically, but because it pins down Beam’s unswerving devotion to a whole bygone universe, the way each of his songs is a tiny self-contained passion play. Ben Gibbard, whose poetic sensibilities are surprisingly close to Beam’s, would have a harder time selling “The cat was choking on a rattlesnake bone” than Beam does murmuring his way through “Such Great Heights.”
Around the Well, a two-disc collection of non-album tracks, demonstrates the consistency of Beam’s archaic Midas touch mainly by trying to dilute it. That is, neither its haphazardly chronological sequencing (disc one home recordings, disc two studio jams) nor its dalliances with modern-pop directness do anything to shake Beam out of his chosen world and time. Over its 23 songs, Iron & Wine’s sound changes, from scratchy sparseness to well-appointed sparseness and through to the jittery clamor that marked The Shepherd’s Dog, but the underlying world doesn’t. The cars continue to rust, the animals to foreshadow, God and nameless women alike to be charismatic and demanding and vague.
There are a few unexpected nuances – the inventive sonic slip of “Serpent Charmer,” for one, and the chillingly evasive narration of “Carried Home” – that peek outside of Beam’s Southern Gothic sphere and let in a hint of temporality. But from the front to the back of Around the Well, and by association of Iron & Wine’s seven-year career, is still only as far as the difference between “I’ll put my trust in the savior / Fuming forces of nature / Strength of the stump I tied you boy” and “the pearly gates have some eloquent graffiti, like ‘we’ll meet again’ and ‘fuck the man’ and ‘tell my mother not to worry.’” If that amounts to an admiring way of saying that Beam writes the same song over and over again, such is the effect of this collection.