10 Best Iron & Wine Songs
Since signing with Sub Pop in 2002, Iron & Wine, the recording moniker of Southerner Sam Beam, has been one of music’s more unlikely success stories. Beam’s early tunes were sung in a near whisper, allowing the singer and the listener to bond over shared nostalgia, memories of lost love and acceptance of the idea that life’s joys require sorrow. Over the years, Beam has changed the Iron & Wine sound, adding more instrumentation and increasing fidelity and even experimenting with electronic textures. Beam has also made quite a number of fans through his cover songs, the best-known of which is his version of the Postal Service‘s ‘Such Great Heights.’ Iron & Wine’s most recent release, ‘Ghost on Ghost,’ deliberately steps away from what Beam has called a “tension” in his previous two offerings, and the change is welcome, with its strong moments sounding classic and warm, like the way your parent’s music sounded when you were a child. Unless your parents were into glam or something. Below are Diffuser’s picks for the 10 Best Iron & Wine songs. It could have easily been 20 or 30.
‘Cinder and Smoke’
Kicking off the 10 Best Iron & Wine Songs list, ‘Cinder and Smoke’ does not instantly distinguish itself from Sam Beam’s usual sentimental acoustic fare. The song becomes special in the final couple minutes, where its gentle gallop receives unexpected harmony help. It’s something Iron & Wine would later feature often, but here, it’s strong in its embryonic state.
‘Walking Far From Home’
‘Walking Far From Home’ gets some criticism for being so lyrically Dylan-esque, but to take that angle would be to ignore both the beauty of Beam’s imagery and the adventurous production. Never has Iron & Wine attempted such contemporary sounds in a song, with the backing vocals and electronic textures acting as foils to the folky nature of the lyrics. We’ll see if Sam Beam continues down this road in the future.
‘The Desert Babbler’
Yes, ‘The Desert Babbler’ is Iron & Wine gone almost adult contemporary, but the basis comes from R&B, something you might hear from a Motown group. Regardless of whether the direction is too much of a stretch, it’s a rare moment from the band that you could imagine dancing with a loved one to at a wedding. In a sense, it’s Iron & Wine getting away from the solitary nature of old. And it works wonderfully.
Seventh on our list of 10 Best Iron & Wine Songs is the title-track from the ‘Woman King’ EP, a 2005 revelation of a number that presents a side of Iron & Wine that would have been tough to predict. Recently, Beam has said his later albums held a tension he wanted to get away from, and its birth has to be seen in this track, with blues slide guitar, wood-snap percussion and a foot-stomping pace guiding the audience away from listening solely to the singer’s words for the first time.
‘Faded From The Winter’
A deep cut from Iron & Wine’s debut, ‘Faded From the Winter’ stands out for its tempo. Finding Beam still sounding very much like a solo act, the rushed finger-picking gives the melody a brisk pace and uplifting quality, brought home by a slide-guitar solo that ties up the compact number perfectly. Iron & Wine have never seemed as inspired as on this first album, and though Beam would accomplish greater compositions, the emotion of these tracks can’t be matched.
‘The Sea And The Rhythm’
The title-track from the 2003 EP ‘The Sea & The Rhythm’ is so hushed and slowly paced that at times, it can feel like it is barely there, until a banjo solo comes in and creates what is probably the most affecting instrumental moment on an Iron & Wine album. Beam’s early work is so spare that the slightest diversion from the script holds immense weight, and a calling card of the project has been his ability to fully capitalize on these moments.
Iron & Wine’s best-selling album saw Sam Beam grow bigger than most would have expected, both in popularity and sound. But, despite the intense and driven nature of the album, ‘Resurrection Fern’ sounds essentially like the project of old, but with more expensive production. As subsequent albums have shown, this would mark Beam’s last brush with the intimate ballads Iron & Wine had been known for, ushering in a change for the project.
‘The Trapeze Swinger’
No. 3 on our 10 Best Iron & Wine Songs tally is Sam Beam’s “long song,” ‘The Trapeze Swinger,’ released for the film ‘In Good Company.’ The song centers on familiar themes of memory and the fleeting and everlasting nature of love, explored deeply and with grace, with Beam full of memorable turns of phrase, including “the pearly gates had some eloquent graffiti /like ‘We’ll meet again’ and ‘F— the man’ and ‘Tell my mother not to worry’ / and angels with their great handshakes were always done in such a hurry.” Also impressive is how the song foreshadows the production direction Iron & Wine would take, with increased instrumentation and backing vocals.
‘Upward Over the Mountain’
Perhaps the the saddest and truest song about the relationship between mother and son ever written. Taken from Iron & Wine’s first full-length, ‘Upward Over the Mountain’ uses the guitar strum to tap out a beat, harmonizes two Beam voices, adds some soft claps and changes the rhythm slightly in the chorus in a subtle shift that makes this a quiet singalong. Lyrically, Beam juxtaposes the relationship’s shift from childhood (“I’ve got some money I saved for the weekend,” “Remember the blink of an eye when I breathed through your body”) to the dark places that adulthood can lead (“I’ve lost it all of the fear of the Lord I was give,” “I’ve got a cup and a friend on the corner”). The lasting sentiment that he hits on — “let the sun bring hope where it once was forgotten, sons are like birds flying upwards over the mountain” — is the desire for the story take a turn for the better, though the reality is that he has been separating from the child she birthed since the very beginning. The desire to not break your mom’s heart, and to never let her down, motivates many men, but rarely enough to actually change their decisions. A sad truth but a real one.
At his best, Sam Beam’s gentle voice can bring both the comfort of a family and the wisdom of teacher, with the slow-burning repetition of melody simmering for three minutes of images and nostalgic longing for something you’ve never even known. Interestingly, like “Upward Over the Mountain,” “Passing Afternoon” — No. 1 on our list of the Best Iron & Wine Songs — is a title track of sorts, containing the album title in the lyrics, as if Beam knows which songs of his are the best. The power of ‘Passing Afternoon,’ though, lies both in Beam’s vivid memory and how it affects the audience. You wind up happy to feel anything at all, to feel connected to the songwriter and to those you’ve loved. Beam sums this up best: “A baby sleeps in all our bones, so scared to be alone.”