Iron & Wine's whispers resound

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NORTHAMPTON — Iron & Wine's songs aren't lullabies; Sam Beam's lyrics can haunt. But the folk singer-songwriter's soft, soothing vocals ensure that his concertgoers' ears won't be ringing by the time their heads hit their pillows, either.

"The other day I figured out I should just stay quiet," Beam told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview, referring to a mid-career foray into a louder sound that drew some negative reviews.

It's working. Beam's latest album, "Beast Epic," has received a chorus of critical acclaim since its Aug. 25 release, at least partly because he has returned to the whispery singing and guitar-driven music that helped him first climb the contemporary folk ranks 15 years ago.

"Iron & Wine has rediscovered the power and beauty in scaling back when it serves the song, and the result is Beam's most dynamic and convincing record in years," Jonathan Bernstein writes for Rolling Stone.

"When `Beast Epic' opens with a few seconds of Beam counting off under his breath and gently tapping the rhythm on the body of his acoustic guitar, it's like wrapping a warm blanket around a cold body," Philip Cosores writes for Pitchfork. "It is the sound of Iron & Wine returning home, ending one chapter and beginning another."

On Sunday night, Beam will mix in some of his new tunes at Calvin Theater. (He often tours with a supporting band featuring a keyboardist, drummer and bassist, among others.) While Beam's prior albums have had concrete themes that tie their tracks together — on "The Shepherd's Dog" (2007), four-legged references; on "Kiss Each Other Clean" (2011), rivers — his new record's songs don't offer such evident similarities. Instead, they share something more abstract.

"They all had a frailty to them that I found honest and kind of where I was at in my thinking," the 43-year-old said.

Beam's music doesn't eschew hope. "Call It Dreaming," his most recent single, explores how failings can be refashioned as successes and redeemed by love. A similar nod to perseverance appears in "Upward over the Mountain," a track off of Iron & Wine's well-received 2002 debut album, "The Creek Drank the Cradle": "May the sunrise bring hope where it was once was forgotten," the refrain goes.

But he can also get dark. Death is at the fore in "Naked As We Came," which is from Beam's 2004 sophomore album, "Our Endless Numbered Days": "She says, `If I leave before you, darling, don't you waste me in the ground.'"

The songs' often difficult subject matter is one of the reasons Beam feels his fans connect privately but not publicly with his music.

"Some songs are about reflecting on your life, and it's not always something that people are comfortable sharing with other people," he said. "So, I think my music provides them the space to check in with themselves even if...the song doesn't describe their life [necessarily]."

Spirituality also stokes that introspection. Even though he no longer practices Christianity, Beam's Southern, religious upbringing still affects his composition.

"I feel like hymns had a big part [in] my understanding of song structure and melody," he said.

Punk rock and 1960s rhythm and blues also inspired Beam during his youth. His affinity for the former caused him to try some hollering at a young age and later in life, but he eventually abandoned it.

"It sounds like someone yelling, not particularly sonorous," Beam said. "There are definitely pleasing yell-ers out there — Bob Marley and John Lennon — people who can do it, and [it] sounds just great, but that's not me."

Nor is he a folk artist who looks to current political events for motivation.

"Public policy doesn't really inspire me to make art...probably the opposite. It just bores the f--- out of me," he said.

Instead, he uses music, literature and film to guide his lyrics.

"They all inform just the way I like to communicate visually, whether it's describing scenes or using more of a descriptive, associative language in songs," he said. "I think I draw a lot more inspiration from poets than I do from songwriters, for better or for worse."

He's trying to create timeless tunes, the ones that stick with listeners when they rest their heads at night.

"When I sit down to write a song," he said, "I'm looking for something a little more existential, or spiritual."


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