Light Verse

How do you measure the time between albums? The calendar says that Iron & Wine’s latest studio effort, Light Verses, arrives exactly six years, eight months, and one day after its previous one, 2017’s Beast Epic. Your record shelf, on the other hand, says it’s been two EPs, one Archive Series release, one collab with Calexico, one reissue of his breakthrough album, two live albums, and a documentary. Maybe it’s more useful to tally up all the mundane moments when you’ve tried to be a good partner or patient father or productive artist or engaged citizen—tasks all complicated by a global pandemic that, for Sam Beam, anyway, proved creatively crippling. These various metrics are all bouncing around his skull on Light Verse, an album very much aware of time passing. Beam’s own abacus can be startlingly gruesome: “Time likes pulling my teeth,” he sings on the wry, spry “Cutting It Close.” “I never knew how many teeth I would need.”

All of those yanked molars add up to a new perspective on pretty much everything. Beam reemerges on Light Verse with a dry sense of humor and a newfound ability to laugh off certain tragedies, like death—both others’ and your own—precisely because they are inevitable. Even back on Iron & Wine’s relatively lo-fi 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, he had a flair for dressing up bleak truths in warm melodies and reassuringly measured vocals, not only making them palatable but finding beauty in sorrow. Beam can still pull off that sleight of hand gracefully enough to make the title Light Verse sound queasily ironic, but now he’s looking backwards over 49 years. These new songs are about tracing your steps, taking stock, and raising a glass to lovers and friends who pass through your life only briefly. He spends much of the album wondering about people’s whereabouts: “I knew someone long ago, whether I wanted to or not,” he sings on the stark “Taken by Surprise.” “We never said goodbye that I remember.” That person didn’t stay long, but it was enough to provoke gratitude half a lifetime later.

The new outlook of middle age animates these songs and allows Beam to tinker with tone and form. Light Verse is a lively, relatively breezy album, despite its somber subject matter. He worked with a new crew of musicians, including bassist Sebastian Steinberg and multi-instrumentalist Davíd Garza, who make sure their flourishes never distract from the pith of his songs. “Sweet Talk” has the bouncy pomp of ’60s bubblegum psych, which feels new for Beam, and “Yellow Jacket” builds so patiently that it sounds epic despite clocking in at a mere three and a half minutes.

“All in Good Time,” a duet with Fiona Apple, surveys the full arc of a relationship as they repeat the title like a mantra and milk it of every possible implication. “All in good time my angel came back/Made us some money but that didn’t last,” he sings to her. “All in good time and that’s what it was/Mistook that cash in the mattress for love,” she sings back. The imagery becomes outlandish, and it’s fun to think of Apple and Beam holding up banks and stealing cars, but a distinct melancholy underscores each note. Even the good times will end eventually. That idea gestures toward the bittersweet irony of this fine late-career album: All the years have pulled Beam’s teeth, but they have also sharpened his pen.

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Iron & Wine: Light Verse