Sam Beam is a careful man. Long before he had a backing band to speak of, he hid behind the pseudonym Iron & Wine, carefully layering ghostly vocal tracks over carefully picked guitar melodies on a four-track recorder. His second full-length album, “Our Endless Numbered Days,” used richer production without abandoning stark simplicity: The result was a new, crisper sound, coming from the same ghosts, the same guitars.
Now, with the release of the six-song EP “Woman King,” Beam carefully lets us know that his music has a trajectory — and what a lovely trajectory it is. A quiet man’s electric album, it is still very much acoustic; and for an album namely about women, it occasionally verges on bellicose.
The album begins with the title track, driven by dense percussion and slide guitars. The song has the almost undetectable fuzz of an electric guitar, which flips up at the end of lines, and there is even an electric organ. But it’s still Sam Beam — just thicker, broader, fuller. He so carefully embeds the sounds into the mix that it’s like he’s trying to slip them past us.
After the first song, Beam retreats. A dulcimer mixes into quiet acoustic and electric guitars, ushering his voice into a re-recording of “Jezebel,” a song about a vanished lover. But we notice almost immediately that his voice isn’t hiding behind his trademark layers of tight overdubbing. We hear, perhaps for the first time, Beam’s real voice, bare and beautiful. The effect is haunting: “Who’s seen Jezebel? / She went walking where the sea does line the road / Her blouse on the ground where the dogs were hungry roaming.” When the layering returns later, it carries more weight.
In most of his music, new and old, Beam creates a collection of sepia-toned photographs by mixing his own biblical imagination with common conceptions of the old South. The pictures are foggy, and ambiguity reigns. In both “Woman King” and the lilting “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven,” Beam uses almost apocalyptic imagery. “Mary, carry your shame, well past dawn those eyes across the avenue / Fish heads, running from rain, you know I’ll do anything you want me to,” he sings in “Heaven.” On the title track, a female king is imagined first as a saintly warrior for whom time slows. But by song’s end she succumbs unwillingly to the evils of power: She weeps with “blood-shot eyes,” her thumb pointing down in a reluctant condemnation.
In “My Lady’s House,” which sounds like a rendition of a Clapton ballad — or, with some imagination, an R&B song from the ’90s — Beam sings, “Thank God you see me the way you do, strange as you are to me.” A swaying bass dominates the soulful song as Beam worships the opposite sex. This tone stages a sharp contrast to the next song, the album’s closer. Recalling the percussive drive of “Woman King,” Beam returns to war with “Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song).” He sings high over a building wall of sound, “… there is no one else around / so you will blame me / Blame me for the rocks and baby bones and broken like a log.” Massive distorted guitars (in the relative world of folk music) follow, and “Evening” becomes louder and broader than any Iron & Wine song to date: “We were born to f**k each other/ one way or another.” Beam ends the song, and the EP, with bizarre, almost child-like defiance: “You will never make me learn to lay beneath the mountain / ’cause I’ll only lie / down by the waterside tonight.”
“Woman King” carefully navigates the zones between acoustic and electric, but with this last track, Iron & Wine truly widens its spectrum. It leaves us to wonder just how far the group’s trajectory will take us.
Three and a half stars