Classic Americana Albums: Iron & Wine “Our Endless Numbered Days”

Sub Pop, 2004

Sam Beam’s first album ‘The Creek Drank The Cradle’ was home recorded on a 4-track and was distributed on cassette to friends. It garnered recognition in the indie folk scene and resulted in a contract with Sub Pop Records. As you might guess from a lo-fi folk debut, the sound is sparse and intimate but it already comprises of the poetic lyrics and tender, understated vocals so characteristic of his work.

It is on his second album, ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ under the name Iron & Wine, that the pieces truly fit together. There is more confidence in the performance and the mix is clear and professional. The additional instruments provided by the band add significant depth and complexity, serving to emphasise rather than detract from the sparsity in the composition and the delicacy of the vocals. This work was well received and widely recognised on it’s release in 2004, but to me it remains a private album, that you listen to as a personal pleasure rather than something to play to others with that characteristic “you have to hear this” so beloved of music aficionados.

The use of additional instruments is crafted for emphasis throughout. There is just the right minimal contribution when an additional instrument is added, providing structure but retaining a lightness of touch. This is evident from the opening track ‘On Your Wings’ where additional percussion first appears at one minute, hinting at further musical development which only truly takes place after the vocals end, almost as an addendum to the song. ‘Cinder and Smoke’ uses the same approach to stronger effect utilising additional vocals to provide the structure. ‘Love and Some Verses’ is unsurprisingly a love song, but for Iron & Wine it progresses with a distinct drum rhythm and a spring in it’s step.

Sodom, South Georgia’ has a darkness lurking that is not evident in most of the album and is for me, the standout track. From the opening line “Papa died smiling, wide as the ring of a bell” this song somehow conveys both comfort and loss in equal measure. In ‘Passing Afternoon’ the line “There are things that drift away like our endless, numbered days” succinctly defines the melancholia embedded in this work and also provides the album title. A simple yet amazingly strong piano contribution lifts this closing song.

This album is all feel, it whispers in your ear like the passing of a slow Sunday afternoon as the late sunlight casts shadows across the room. It occupies a similar space to the works of Leonard Cohen, so I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that Sam has covered “Chelsea Hotel”. Lyrically there are songs here that I know the words, but not the meaning and that’s OK, it adds to the abstract nature of a work where there are things that remain beyond understanding.

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