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Iron & Wine - Weed Garden EP Music Album Reviews

Although it’s neither as purposeful nor as prescient as many of his earlier EPs, Sam Beam’s latest release carries far more weight than its self-deprecating title implies.

Let’s start at the end of Iron & Wine’s new EP, Weed Garden. As the final verse of the final song, “Talking to Fog,” reaches its climax, Sam Beam offers a vivid description of happiness. It’s a place “where our memories of singing fill the air above our heads” and “the faces of our family and friends go on and on.” With each line, his delivery grows faster and more insistent, until the words spill out of his mouth and he sounds more like a soothsayer than a folk singer. It’s one of the most jarring moments Iron & Wine has conjured in quite some time, particularly when the instruments fall away and Beam, singing a cappella, admits: “But it’s hard to find.” In a song about sorrow and depression, he’s hopeful enough to dream up a beautiful space of healing and nourishment, but realistic enough to know that it’s almost impossible to get there. Nothing is ever certain in these songs, nothing guaranteed.

Such realizations lend Weed Garden more weight than the odds-and-ends collection its title implies. Beam penned these songs for last year’s Beast Epic but didn’t complete them in time. For fans, “Waves of Galveston” may be the standout, a favorite of live audiences that dates back five years. With its loping verses and buoyant chorus, it mingles the mundane with the fantastical: “There’s a graveyard by the pizza parlor,” Beam sings, as though pointing out local landmarks to a visitor. “Snowbirds fly away like secrets no one really wants to know.” It’s impossible to tell if he’s observing the real place or imagining some mythical Galveston; either way, he’s playing up the Texas city’s history of destruction—most famously in 1900, most recently in 2017—in a way that doesn’t feel fully earned. The metaphor dwarfs the song.

Perhaps that’s why it's on an EP instead of an LP. Beam has used the abbreviated format strategically throughout his career. 2003’s The Sea & the Rhythm quickly followed his full-length debut, enlarging his frame of reference to prove he was no fluke. Two years later, the excellent Woman King and the Calexico collaboration In the Reins introduced electric textures that predicted the twisting paths he would take on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog. Weed Garden is never quite so purposeful or prescient. We do get to glimpse novel facets of Iron & Wine, like “Milkweed,” whose melody seems to dissipate even as the words leave Beam’s mouth. On the other hand, we also get songs like “Last of Your Rock ‘n’ Roll Heroes,” whose folk-funk groove is an ungainly as its flippancy toward its titular subject.

Perhaps that’s why “What Hurts Worse” stands out: Rather than offering a new trick by this old shepherd’s dog, it reinforces what makes Iron & Wine so distinctive. Beam excavates everyday truths, writing about relationships with a directness that can be disarming: “Let’s become the lovers we need,” he sings, forcefully. “Who knew we’d be needing so much?” And yet, there’s something celebratory in the melody, something that suggests our needs and our pains can define us in positive rather than negative ways. It’s a song that recalls Iron & Wine’s early albums, when Beam seemed like the scout we had sent ahead to report back on our final moments, to show us the fate that awaits us all. While his music has grown more ornate, both musically and lyrically, the idea of you and me and him and everybody else in the world as finite beings continues to inform every strum of his guitar and every softly uttered syllable.

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