Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On the merits of Iron & Wine

A few years ago a friend and I were talking music, bouncing bands off each other and discovering we had tastes that were aligned quite well. We both took an interest in snob-approved indie rock, while especially gravitating towards Americana. So I was a bit surprised when he scoffed at my mention of Iron & Wine.

"I dunno, it's kind of bitch folk," was his exact statement. I was a bit surprised, but shrugged it off and moved on to someone else. Still, that label always stuck with me. "Bitch folk". Admittedly, it's pretty funny and I've actually borrowed it in describing music. But does it apply to Iron & Wine?

Surely I can't fault this guy for thinking so--this was still pre-Shepherd's Dog era, by the way, so most available I&W was strictly guitar/vocals. All we knew about Sam Beam is that he had a beard, a silken voice, and lyrics like "I want your flowers like babies need God's love." Understandable if that registers on one's Bitch-Folkometer.

But dig deeper and you'll find some pretty deranged stuff in Sam's work; subject matter that your garden variety bitch-folk artist would find unsettling if not repulsive. I mean, let's not forget his first album is called Creek Drank the Cradle. Consider that eerie imagery for a minute. The line "creek drank the cradle" appears in "Upwards Over the Mountain", which is about a prodigal son attempting to console the resentful mother he's abandoned by justifying his departure. "Mother don't worry, I killed the last snake that lived in the creekbed." No reason to worry; she's not in danger. And back to the "creek drank the cradle" line: "Mother forget me now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to." A spiteful mother literally discards her child's old cradle, symbolically drowning the baby she once adored.

This kind of Southern Gothic imagery appears frequently throughout Beam's work. With that in mind, would one be remiss to assume the "I want your flowers" lyric could have some sort of sinister undertone? Suffice to say, it's not all daisies and sunshine with Sam, despite his surface-level placidity. Bitch-folk? Not even close.

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