It’s a bit of an awkward mixed metaphor, but the whole cabin-in-the-woods thing which dominated the mid-noughties didn’t just spring up from nowhere.
As an antidote to nu metal and arena club noise, songwriters like Erlend Øye and British acts such as Turin Brakes and I Am Kloot were making music for rainy day afternoons well before Justin Vernon et al. As Iron & Wine, Sam Beam was another antecedent; releasing The Creek Drank The Cradle in 2002, recorded in keeping with the building tide – i.e entirely on his own – its rustic banjo and feather-fragile vocals enchanted anyone it touched.
Released two years later its follow-up, much to many people’s surprise, went on to sell more than half a million copies worldwide. This time the secret got out; Our Endless Numbered Days was a story where variations to Beam’s established pattern were relatively minor, but like a single flap of a wing, the ripple effects were felt deep in its earthy grain.
This tinkering stopped short of heresy – Beam’s sister Sarah provides wispy harmonies to On Your Wings, the opener rotating slowly around a simple guitar riff like a hog on a woodland spit – but each turn of the ratchet made for darker relish, the tourniquet blues of Teeth In The Grass a warlock’s call to devotion: ‘And when you give me your clothes/And when we’re lovers at last/Fresh air, perfume in your nose/There will be teeth in the grass’.
Is Beam so frequently whispering because his words are so portentous? Naked As We Came is a love song about death, one in which the clumsy would only turn morbid, but the gently exhaled words surround the idea with the pragmatism and articles of faith only the poor can afford: ‘One of us will die inside these arms/ Eyes wide open, naked as we came/ One of us will spread our ashes around the yard’.
This austerity leaves few hiding places. Radio War finds the siblings tracking each other to a gently mono-chorded banjo strum, while Each Coming Night is barely more ostentatious, gorgeously sombre but each verse asking for a vow that will come with a price either way.
Even with these apparent secrets, Our Endless Numbered Days has in it a harder centre, one which time has struggled to wear away. Here then, on Until They Cut Me Down, there’s a pitch-black boogie going on to scare the horses, one that extends lyrically into the pseudo-gothic tones of Sodom, South Georgia; sharing a spirit casually with Sufjan Stevens, the departed who stalk it however are from a time and place all of their own. Cinder and Smoke is more compelling still, riddle stacked on riddle with the pile of instruments played on it like so many mismatched bones rattling in a stained old pot.
As is customary, this reissue comes with the gift of unreleased material; the demo versions provide a blueprint and alternate, bleaker sketchbook with woodcuttings and half-finished prayers going to nowhere.
Our Endless Numbered Days takes the symbolism of the once maverick men of the back country but instead makes the aesthetic beautiful and unfulfilled, the way anyone’s true happiness always seems to be.