Photograph: Craig Kief

Photograph: Craig Kief

Ryman Auditorium • November 10

by Holly Gleason

“Mostly I was using what I had: a banjo, a guitar, and a 4-track [recorder] and making it work,” says Sam Beam, the man known as Iron & Wine, of his breathtakingly spare initial recordings. Before Americana was a colonized genre, The Creek Drank the Cradle was turning heads and picking up notice for its quiet songscapes, lyrical evocations, and comparisons to Elliott Smith, the organic Neil Young, and even Nick Drake.

With a cinematic scope, the Florida State Film School’s MFA graduate channeled his creativity into abstract, minimalist songs. Our Endless Numbered Days expanded his acoustic-based arrangements, and an almost anti-star was forged.

These days, Beam lives in Dripping Springs, Texas, with his wife and five children. He’s built a devoted following that allows artistic freedom to the man whose influences range from Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, “and the R.E.M.s of the world,” as well as filmmakers Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, and artists including David Parks “and all that found outsider art, where you know their minds aren’t quite right, but the work is so exciting.”

In many ways, Iron & Wine’s music has that same patchwork vérité. Ghost on Ghost, his latest, merges noir influences with California sunshine, progressive jazz, subdued pop, and classic soul to conjure a song cycle that moves seamlessly between them.
“Finally, I learned how to incorporate those things,” he says. “It’s a lot like visual art: contrast is a big deal. In painting, it’s color or textural. Here it’s how it sounds to place the instruments against each other, the way long notes and staccato notes work against each other. Even how space plays in there . . . and it has taken me a long time to learn how to slip in complex chord changes without making it feel overworked or laborious for the listener.”

Even the title—taken from a poem by James Wright—evokes various realms of being. Beam confesses, “I steal images here and there, and that one was so good, I don’t even remember the rest of the poem.” Ghost on Ghost finds Beam moving into the depths of relationships without ever bordering on the expected or the obvious.

Pausing, he opens his meaning wide, then narrows his focus. “To me, Ghost on Ghost was a fun way to give a nod to the characters’ physical and spiritual selves. I see those people in the car, rubbing spirit onto spirit, literally communing on other planes and truly penetrating each other’s souls.

“Any love song has a set of central characters, but it felt that if you squinted your eyes, you almost feel like it’s chapters of a book. I think it’s working things out, looking over the horizon. “I’m drawn to writing
from the same sources as I’m drawn to paint.”

With the horn-basted opener “Caught in the Briars,” Ghost on Ghost moves through the high-hat tapped hipster cool of “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” the breezy, pillowy “Grace for Saints and Ramblers,” the hushed “Winter Prayers,” and the faltering “Lovers’ Revolution” that creeps along on clouds of feminine “ooohs” and extended horn notes, slowly churning into a more free jazz excavation with squawking trumpets and piano chords keeping the bottom. It culminates in “Baby Center Stage,” a John Lennon-esque melody that’s strung like tiny whites lights of longing, Beam singing in his falsetto as the steel guitar gently weeps.

This is an intellectual proposition, a dozen songs to sink into, allowing the layers to reveal themselves. For the man who taught film at the University of Miami and Miami International, while constructing “songs” on his 4-track recorder so long ago, this latest work celebrates what can be conjured and suggested. Never a literalist, he admits, “If you keep your eyes and heart open, the world gives you lots to write about. Nothing is sacred; it’s all fodder for the songs. But I don’t do diary entries, just use bits and pieces.”

His bits and pieces have turned up in the films Twilight, Garden State, and In Good Company, the TV shows Grey’s Anatomy, The L Word, and House, M.D. as well as commercials for M&Ms and Ask.com. A regular collaborator with Calexico, Beam has sought art on the fringes and always worked to find the highest possibilities in pop music.

“There’s things I learned in art school I use every day while recording. Things I don’t even have to think about; it’s just following where the process leads. You can’t get caught up in what the end result is supposed to sound like or look like. You can’t listen and obsess to that end, because any creative medium—sculpture or film or books—will take you places if you let it.”

Iron & Wine will perform at the Ryman on Sunday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.ryman.com.

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