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Iron & Wine, ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ (Sub Pop)

Iron & Wine’s autumn 2002 debut, The Creek Drank theCradle, arrived with all the fanfare of a tree shedding its leaves. But word spread quietly and quickly. Old-school psychedelic-folk devotees glommed onto Sam Beam’s understated finger-picking and his rural-loner mien, while indie kids loved the record’s no-fi production and its pastoral closeness. The tunes’ startling intimacy even worked live with a full band.When Beam performed at 2003’s South by Southwest music conference, hard-hearted bizzers unmoved by the most histrionic emo bands got genuinely misty at tales of fields and streams, mothers and sons, fear and flight, and sex in the sun.

While Creek was culled from years of home recordings,Endless is largely a band album. But even without the four-track vibe, the songs unfold like hopeful prayers (“God,give us love in the time that we have”), before the musicians launch them skyward. And for Beam, having other people around seems to remind him of how fast they can be taken away. The Dayshe writes about are circumscribed by God (hence Endless) and death (hence Numbered), and the record is haunted by a sense of impending loss. “Naked as We Came” faces mortality with clear eyes and close harmony-“One of us will die inside these arms,” Beam sings. “One will spread our ashes ’round the yard.”

It all works because Beam is a fearlessly accessible songwriter,framing his melancholy in concrete imagery and solid, inviting melodies. He writes with the self-confidence of a man at peace with his gauzy gifts. He sings like a father talking to a child he respects or like a husband to a wife he adores. Beam has given us his second straight masterwork: self-assured, spellbinding, and richly, refreshingly adult.