Sam Beam just sorta stumbled into Iron & Wine. When he moved to Tallahassee to attend graduate school at Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts in the late 1990s, writing songs was merely a hobby. It was more like an extension of his filmmaking, and he didn’t think much of the music he did make, at least not until a friend lent him a four-track recorder. Setting his songs to tape and playing them back, Beam could actually hear them for the first time. He started making decisions about structure, lyrics, melodies, arrangements, and vocals. Through another friend, he landed a song on a compilation by the Portland-based Yeti magazine, then signed a record deal with Sub Pop and an immediate tour opening for Isaac Brock’s side project Ugly Casanova.
In 2015, the first volume in Iron & Wine’s Archive Series collected songs from early in his career, most dating just before the release of his 2002 debut The Creek Drank the Cradle, but the fifth volume goes even deeper into his vault, unearthing some of his very first recordings. (Volumes 2, 3, and 4 were tour-only releases.) Often an archival compilation like this one reveals a steep learning curve, using those first tentative recordings as a point against which to measure an artist’s progress toward more familiar material.
It is gently disappointing that Tallahassee reveals a songwriter and singer already secure in his mannerisms and eccentricities, already in possession of the traits that would eventually endear him to fans. Aside from some rather abrupt fades and a lo-fi hum similar to the one that pervades his debut, the music sounds professional, accomplished, refined. You miss the creative epiphanies, those moments when a young musician realizes what he can do within a song. You miss the idea that an artist started off like any of us.