Theodore Roosevelt you know, the 26th president of the United States was fond of quoting a favorite proverb when talking about the country's role in world politics: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." And while the connection between the former president and music may not be entirely clear, necessary, or advised, I'm going to make it anyway.
Iron and Wine have become experts at speaking softly. Over the course of two
albums, 2002's The Creek Drank the Cradle and 2004's Our Endless Numbered
Days, and a handful of EPs, Sam Beam, the driving force behind the group,
has managed to capture the attention of listeners with nothing more than a few
guitars and his hushed-whisper vocals. The quietness
forced you to pay close attention, to lean in close and work at not missing anything,
and the results were often astonishingly beautiful. But after listening to Woman
King, the group's latest EP, I began to realize that a vital part of the
equation was missing from their earlier albums.
As it turns out, what was missing was Roosevelt's "big stick" the force
and intensity that acts as a counterpoint to the lyrics' subdued beauty. On Woman
King which, as the title suggests, finds a thematic focus in various
women the big stick appears in the form of an increased presence of percussion
and slide guitar, the surprising addition of electric guitar, and a fierceness
in rhythm and Beam's vocals. The title track, a funky, bluesy number, opens with
an aggressive pattern tapped out on the rims of the drums. Over the rhythmic
and somewhat primitive-sounding beat, Beam sings: "Blackbird claw, raven wing/
Under the red sunlight/ Long clothesline, two shirt sleeves/ Waving as we go
by." Buried underneath the evocative vocals and the slide guitar is the growl
of a murky, fuzzy electric guitar. The music adds a simmering intensity to the
lyrics: "Hundred years, hundred more/ Someday we may see a/ Woman king, sword
in hand/ Swing at some evil and bleed." The force of "Woman King" carries over
into "Freedom Hangs Like Heaven," an almost prototypical blues song propelled
by the martial clomp of drums and piano. "Mary, carry your babe/ Bound up tight
like lips around a whimper," the song begins. As it progresses, the title track's
biblical feel becomes more explicit: "Ain't nobody knows what the newborn holds/
But his mama says he'll walk on water/ And wander back home."
Beam's focus on the power and strength of women finds its most forceful expression
in "Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)." The track opens with roiling guitar
and piano, lending a driving intensity which continues to build throughout the
song. The combination of Irish pipes (or an interesting combination of fiddles,
I can't be sure) and a furiously-strummed electric guitar in the middle of the
tune make this Iron and Wine's most aggressive song to date. At one point, Beam
nearly shouts out the lyrics: "We were born to fuck each other/ One way or another" quite
a departure from the subdued presentation we expect from him.
The effect of the newfound force present in these three tracks is exhilarating.
There's a vitality here that makes the other three songs on the album "Jezebel," "Gray
Stables," and "My Lady's House" seem like somewhat of a letdown. This
is a minor complaint, of course, because there isn't anything fundamentally wrong
with these songs they are, after all, more evidence of Beam's talent for
weaving hushed vocals around delicate melodies. "My Lady's House," in particular,
is a beautiful duet between Beam and his sister Sarah. It's just that, placed
next to the "big sticks" of "Woman King," "Freedom Hangs Like Heaven," and "Evening
on the Ground," these songs fail to engage the listener as immediately. Ultimately, Woman
King promises remarkable things to come for Iron and Wine, especially if
Beam continues to expand his musical palette.