Iron and Wine
Around the Well
2009 | Sub Pop
So, the thing is this: Around the Well is a collection of Iron and Wine rarities. And a lot of people are going to be pretty excited about that and, in many ways, I don’t really blame them. I’ll admit outright that The Creek Drank the Cradle is one of my touchstone albums, one of those monumental albums that people like me, like us, anchor the fabric of our lives and memories around. And I’ll also say that nothing Sam Beam has done since has felt, to me, even remotely as inspired or effortlessly executed. Further, I’ll outright state that I thought The Shepherd’s Dog was a pretty abysmal effort in any regard, especially for somebody who had so consistently – even throughout some inconsistent albums – shown the colors of his brilliance.
The basic problem with Around the Well, in my mind anyway, is that Beam’s back-canon is so decidedly unlike that of most singer-songwriters. The Creek Drank the Cradle was infamously delivered to Sub Pop in a form significantly greater than that in which it was released: as “two full-length albums” (or at least enough songs to comprise two full albums), that were eventually pared down into what we would come to know as Iron and Wine’s debut. Beam effectively delivered a mythology that mirrored those of the old-world blues and folk musicians (Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, etc.), but with his music so giftedly updated. He seemed somebody who played and wrote with the singular intention of playing and writing, somebody who happened to have been “discovered” and thrown into the light against his own intentions.
But whatever the case, Beam had a back-catalogue right out of the gate, before Creek was even released. And he’s been playing catch-up ever since, mining that catalogue for its many gems. The Sea and the Rhythm featured five songs from the same cloth as Creek, released, like Creek, un-mastered, as it had been delivered. And all of the releases preceding The Shepherd’s Dog – the Woman King and In The Reigns EPs and Our Endless Numbered Days – feature songs, although re-envisioned, that can be fairly assumed (based on a series of widely available bootleg collections) to date from the Creek tapes. And there are some fantastic songs there. I don’t mean to say that Beam shouldn’t have been pulling songs from his old collection; he absolutely should have. The Creek Drank the Cradle was perfect and contained but, like all perfect albums, its capacity as such was fragile and could have crumbled under the weight of an added track. To have abandoned those tapes completely, though, would have robbed the world of some incredible songs: “Jezebel,” “He Lays in the Reigns,” “Sunset Soon Forgotten” all appear in earlier incarnations. So, that’s the thing: Beam’s been mining the incredible depths of his back-catalogue for years, re-interpreting and releasing its treasures. Around the Well, generally, is what’s left over after those Wells (HAHAHA) have already been mined.
It’s an album, though, that’s going to be loved or loathed based upon how a listener feels about Shepherd’s Dog, an album that, again, I thought was a weak effort for anyone, if only because it played so intensely to what I think of as one of Beams major weaknesses: his blues songs, or, rather, his tendency to craft songs entirely around one blues guitar “riff” rather than a melody. Seriously, dude’s got too many songs to count that are basically him rocking out to an acoustic blues riff, spouting out the same frantic 1-4-5 melody. Shepherd’s Dog just had distracting production. But if you liked that album (and I know a lot of people who LOVED it), there’s some stuff here for you.
In terms of other highlights, though, they are few. Glaringly, of course, there’s “The Trapeze Swinger,” which is a song so inspired and epic that it’s hard to write about in any fashion other than to say that it’s unquestionably one of the best Beam has ever written. “Dearest Forsaken” might have easily replaced “The Rooster Moans” on Creek, but I’m thankful it didn’t. That said, it’s a good song, and endlessly better than the endless blues-inflected yawners that Beam would follow it up with. And, especially throughout the older material, there are some lovely melodies. A lot of people are going to love listening to the covers (“Such Great Heights,” “Waitin’ On A Superman,” “Peng! 33”), and that’s fine. I know some folks were pretty riled up over his “Such Great Heights.” But I see it, and the others, as what they are: that cloying breed of cover song (though, admittedly, I loath any cover song that hasn’t gutted and rebuilt its inspiration from the ground up) that simply slooooooooows things down. You know: the “Whoa he made that fast song pretty” cover song. Tiresome.
Especially after Beam epically re-defined laziness with his almost non-existent contribution to the otherwise inspiring and painstaking Dark Was the Night, I feel like Around the Well is exactly what I don’t want to hear from a new Iron and Wine release. I want to look at the future; I want to remember that Beam is capable of crafting amazing songs, not cool-sounding records. And listening to Around the Well does just the opposite – it’s, very simply, the refuse of an inspiring canon; the toss-offs of a songwriter who, after all this time catching up, seems incapable of truly bearing down and moving forward.
by Chris Kiehne