Iron and Wine’s new album Beast Epic begins, “Our winter keeps running us down/We wake up with love hanging on/Killers let go, killers let go.” And so begins an epic tale of creatures dreaming of love, searching in the half-lit ruins of this world’s good green grass before it withers under the longing glance of a sinking sun. Sam Beam, the man behind the band, is ready to claim his ghost. He’s a shade wandering a God-haunted world, digging deeply into the wound of beauty by making songs. His music is self-admittedly clumsy but free, seeking only to hold on to the light that lingers close to the ground.
Beam channels nostalgia like an arrow to the heart. The beauty and gentle craftsmanship of his tunes only makes them feel more haunted. In Beast Epic, the world is enchanted, only needing the skill of an artist to show forth the magic just under the surface. Beam sings, “Summer clouds blowing up and down the stair/By the end, we’ll take music from them both/Give it back, shining broken glass.” But also by the end, “We hold something too high to ever come back down.” Perhaps this sense of departure for higher realms, the fact that in this world we are always in the process of leaving, is what makes this album rest so deeply on my heart.
It’s a question without an answer. If we, “drift and call it dreaming…weep and call it singing,” what is it that we seek? Many would say that our dreams are a sign of hope that, even as they pierce the heart also lift us up. Beam ponders, singing,
Let the hands of the wrong prophets heal me all they should
Let the wine of the poison Jesus says tastes good
And all those trees lay down if you were a bird and fell into my arms
Something is out there waiting for us, but what? In “Fever Dream,” a song from further back in the discography, he claims, “I want your flowers like babies want God’s love.” In other words, there is a natural desire to achieve a loving union with the divine, even babes feel it, and perhaps it’s the frustration of that desire that causes so much angst, the drive to seek out healing even if it be from the wrong prophets. In the end, though, the heart of creation is sacrificial – Sip poison, claim your ghost, dream backwater dreams even if they drown you. Somehow, someway, all this love that we experience doesn’t fit. It’s too much. It bursts the bounds of its banks and, like water to the ocean, seeks a transcendent reality. As Beam puts it, “We can lose and call it living,” and before we ease away to our own eternal destiny we leave behind what love we can.