Who Can See Forever by Iron & Wine

Release date: November 17, 2023
Label: Sub Pop/Bella Union

Iron & Wine’s latest, Who Can See Forever is the accompanying live soundtrack to the film of the same name. You may ask yourself whether it’s an ideal time to be putting out a concert movie, in the wake of industry bending juggernaut The Eras Tour, or even the full bells ‘n’ whistles return of Stop Making Sense, widely considered a pinnacle of the form. On the other hand, I doubt they figured in the decision. I’ve not had chance to see Who Can See Forever yet but I think it’s unlikely to feature anything like the theatrical spectacle of either. As Iron & Wine, Sam Beam operates in a different register.

While it’s true that he’s covered Talking Heads, (and it’s honestly not all that much of a stretch to imagine him taking on some of Taylor Swift’s songs either) big suits, costume changes and dramatic staging all seem at odds with his songs’ soft spoken air. With his acoustic guitar, comfortable clothes and impressive beard he appears the embodiment of a stereotypical singer-songwriter and while on paper it’s hard to refute that accusation, his music has a way of always wriggling free of such a box.

It has been an odd decade or so with Iron & Wine. Not quiet, he’s been busy enough, but a string of collaborations, covers records, live records and an archive series have dominated and there’s not been that much in the way of new songs. Perhaps Sam Beam’s muse has become recalcitrant where once it was so generous. Maybe I find I’m asking myself if I want to commit to writing about a nineteen song live record that I wasn’t fully convinced I wanted to listen to all the way through and doesn’t even have ‘Jesus the Mexican Boy’ on it. While it’s fun to imagine who he might cover or collaborate with next none of that features here, it’s a roll through the back catalogue, a little too eccentric to be a substitute ‘best-of’ but fairly comprehensive all the same.

 

What it offers is the sound of a live band playing together in front of an appreciative crowd, although they seem largely incidental. Beam tends to sing a little louder live than in the studio so as to be heard but it’s relative. His gentle voice is the centre of his songs and so changes in arrangements or weirder moments slip by behind and around it. Sometimes it’s like being sat in his lap as he sings you a lullaby, sometimes like he’s not even singing out loud but only in his head.

The film and album take their title from the opening song ‘The Trapeze Swinger’. It’s a song I always loved but hadn’t listened to for a few years. Its spell is unbroken. Being a seven minute long song with no chorus it’s an odd song to open with and perhaps an unlikely one to become one of his most beloved but there it is. He wrote it for a film soundtrack and it originally appeared on Around The Well a trawl of stray songs from his earlier days that also took its title from the song’s lyrics. Almost accidentally it seems to capture everything that is wonderful in his songs in one rolling, looping vision. A gently moving tempo and hazy stream of lyrics that seems almost effortless but is dense with thoughts and images soaked in emotion and something beyond all purpose nostalgia. A rueful sense of the passing world.

‘The Trapeze Swinger’ carries an almost ineffable sense of life’s mystery, of the sadness and joy slipping past us. Beam’s songs face mostly backwards (which is how life can be understood) rather than forwards (which is how it must be lived). Its music casts an unusual spell, seeming to do very little, it never drags over its extended length, shifting in pace and volume for emphasis. Like Gram Parson’s vision of Cosmic American Music it is connected to country, soul and folk without dressing in their styles. By the end I was sure I would write about the new record, indeed I was sure that had Beam shambled out of nowhere gifted us this feat of a song only to then vanish his reputation would be secure. There are then eighteen other songs. 

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