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Iron & Wine Find Hope in Despair in Hope in Despair

Optimistic melancholy is omnipresent on Sam Beam's latest LP, Light Verse
Iron & Wine (Photo credit: Kim Black)

Iron & Wine – Light Verse
Sub Pop

It would be taking things too far to categorize Light Verse as a “post-pandemic” album. Yet its emergent themes resonate with that time’s corollary yearning for hope and community amid profound loneliness. Timeless as that territory may be, there’s poignancy in this being the first full-length Iron & Wine solo album since 2017’s Beast Epic.

Throughout the 10-track record, singer-songwriter Sam Beam erects a push-pull emotional dynamic, a desire to remain optimistic in the face of a society that makes hope a chore (or a capitalist enterprise). “There’s a wealth of opportunity clinging to the world,” Beam sings on “Bag of Cats.” “You’ll never find a better place to die.”

Since 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron & Wine has constructed an idiosyncratic sound around his percussive picking and breathy vocals sung just above a whisper. That’s not to say Beam has been static, but he’s not shaking those defining qualities on Light Verse. Instead, that distinctive voice is a foundation for towering songs, an album that grows and blooms with epic crescendos (“Yellow Jacket”), slow-burn earworm hooks (“Anyone’s Game”), and tongue-in-cheek, Shakespearean clown wisdom (“Nobody’s perfect or as dumb as their luck”).

That optimistic melancholy is omnipresent on Light Verse—a title itself emblematic of the tone—whether it’s “All in Good Time,” on which his vocals pair beautifully with Fiona Apple, or  the grandiose swells of “Tears That Don’t Matter.” In the former, he provides something of a thesis statement for the album: Guitar and piano intertwine in a playful call and response, echoing their braiding voices. “All in good time, I gave it my best,” Beam sings. “I was alone until I found myself.” Later, Apple responds, “I ran my mouth ‘til I’d nothing to say / You broke my heart, then I was okay.”

Of course, that tone runs the risk of becoming slight and saccharine, something Beam seems to acknowledge and play with on “Sweet Talk.” Verses revolve around the repetition of “a wonderful life,” abruptly giving way to minor-key interludes—a voice smiling through struggle. “Feel it moving faster / We’ll have a cow and then we’ll put it out to pasture / Pray the moment doesn’t take a life to master,” he sings in one passage. As the song builds toward an atmospheric finale, even the verses can’t resist adopting a darker tone, but his refrain remains the same: “Let’s bow, bow, and scrape / Sucker punching straight into the face / of a wonderful life, of a wonderful life.” 

The longing of Light Verse seeks consolation from the world, finding that the best reassurance might be nothing more than the fact we’re still standing. GRADE: B+

You can check out Light Verse at Bandcamp and elsewhere.

Sub Pop