In honor of me turning 30, I’m making mix CDs of my favorite songs from each of my 30 favorite musical artists/groups. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for this list. They’re simply my personal favorites. Coming in at number 15 is Iron & Wine.
“Making music, the process of writing and recording, that’s all like daydreaming to me.” Those are the words of Samuel Beam—better known by his stage name, Iron & Wine—from a 2007 interview with Helen Brown for The Telegraph.
The quote sits well with me because listening to Iron & Wine’s music has always felt meditative and dreamlike to me. There was a time in the mid-2000s when I would drift off night after night listening to the final few tracks from Our Endless Numbered Days, “Fever Dream”, “Sodom, South Georgia”, and “Passing Afternoon”, all of which made it onto this compilation. Iron & Wine’s lush, soothing vocals effectively put my mind at ease and allow me to get lost in the moment in a way that few other artists can.
A blogger named DandyLyonWhine adeptly described Iron & Wine thusly: “If you’ve not heard Iron & Wine before you will discover an amazing and magical intimacy. No matter the volume, every Iron & Wine song sounds like it is whispered into your ear. It’s like you can feel his breath on the side of your face. There are no casual Iron & Wine fans, and the people who are not fans yet simply haven’t heard the song that Beam wrote for them.”
From that same 2007 interview, I learned that Beam welcomes listener interpretations of his music. “Rarely do I deny an influence,” he says. “It’s all flattering to me, what people hear in it. If they hear it.”
Along the same lines of the dreamlike/meditative quality of Iron & Wine, there is a prayerful quality to much of Beam’s music. Reading the interview, I also learned that Beam was raised Christian but today identifies as agnostic. “There’s an undeniable unseen world that some people call God and think they know more about than other people. I try not to get hung up on the names,” Beam said.
Listening to his music, it’s clear that Beam is a very spiritual man, and it’s interesting how many of his lyrics have impacted me as I continue my own life’s journey, particularly those with religious implications.
The simplistic majesty of the track I chose to open with, “Peng 33”, made it a fitting piece of the soundtrack for the morning I proposed to Jessie.
Incredible things are happening in the world
Magical things are happening in the world
Those words captured so beautifully all that was bound up in the promise of her saying “Yes” to that age-old question.
“Naked as We Came” is a touching meditation on the inevitability of death and how it is intertwined with our significant others. The idea that “one of us will die inside these arms” is a heartbreaking line of poetry, but again, it takes on a different significance when viewed through a religious lens.
In “Walking Far From Home” from 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean, the speaker spends the entire song describing all the things that he has seen while walking far from home. And how does it end?
I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a wet road form a circle
And it came like a call, came like a call from the Lord
It’s a powerful conclusion to me, a sort of pronouncement that, yes, all of these things I’ve seen—good things like flowers and sunlight and water and challenging things like car crashes, sickness, and sinners making music—they all come like a call from the Lord if we simply open our ears wide enough to hear. To me, it’s a call to see past prejudices and to avoid narrow-minded, closed-minded thinking about who or what is of God in our world.
Other tracks on the compilation have religious connotations in their titles like “Communion Cups and Someone’s Coat”, “Resurrection Fern” and “Sacred Vision.”
But perhaps the song that combines the elements of the dreamlike meditation and the religion rich lyrics like a prayer is “The Trapeze Swinger”, a 9:31 that opens each verse with the a slightly altered repetition of the line, “please remember me…” filling in the next word or phrase with an adverb that then transitions into a memory. The song is apparently being sung posthumously from the perspective of someone who has died to a loved one.
Although musically it is a very simple song, its length and lyrical complexity lends itself to multiple interpretations. There is circus imagery such as the trapeze swinger and circus clowns, but the religious language is even more pronounced throughout the song. The song references the pearly gates and the holy kingdom,
Prior to an extended outro featuring a “nah-nah-nah” chorus, the song ends with these words:
So please remember me, finally
And all my uphill clawing
My dear, but if I make the Pearly Gates
I’ll do my best to make a drawing
Of God and Lucifer, a boy and girl
An angel kissin’ on a sinner
A monkey and a man, a marching band
All around the frightened trapeze swinger
It’s a really sweet sentiment about the depths of the speaker’s love for whomever he’s addressing this song. The idea boils down to, if I make it to heaven, I want to tell my significant other what it’s like. It’s really a wonderful song. If you’ve never heard it, I’d recommend finding 10 quiet minutes to zone out and let it wash over you. Or maybe 20 minutes—it’s probably worth listening more than once!
I used “The Trapeze Swinger” as the penultimate track on this compilation, leading into “Such Great Heights”, a cover of a song by The Postal Service. The Iron & Wine version is most widely associated with the iconic Garden State soundtrack. Although Beam doesn’t get the songwriting credit for this one, God is name-dropped once again.
And I have to speculate
That God himself did make us
Into corresponding shapes
Like puzzle pieces from the clay
Ultimately, none of us—Catholics, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, or atheist—knows anything definitively. Sure, I have faith and beliefs as does Beam. But while Beam and I may have come to different conclusions about our faith, I have a great deal of respect for he and anyone who dares to ask the big questions, use religiously charged language in conventional and challenging ways, and partake in a personal faith journey regardless of the destination (or even knowing if he or she will ever find one). In addition to enjoying the music, I come away from listening to Iron & Wine with a respect for his difference of opinion and a certain kind of spiritual kinship in the way he peacefully weaves his words and thoughts together. His music is an introspective person’s dream, and for that Iron & Wine is among my all-time favorites.
MM 30 at 30: Iron & Wine tracklist (finalized June 12, 2014)
1. Peng 33
2. Naked As We Came
3. Communion Cups and Someone’s Coat
4. Passing Afternoon
5. Sunset Soon Forgotten
6. Upward Over the Mountain
7. Walking Far From Home
8. Tree By the River
9. Love and Some Verses
10. Lovesong of the Buzzard
11. Glad Man Singing
12. Resurrection Fern
13. Sodom, South Georgia
14. Waitin’ For a Superman
15. Sacred Vision
16. Fever Dream
17. The Trapeze Swinger
18. Such Great Heights