When visiting family over Christmas, opportunities to listen to music are few and far between. I found myself reaching for the iPod on Christmas morning just to grab a song or two before the day got going and I found myself gravitating towards ‘Passing Afternoon’, the final track on ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’. A lovely, meandering and moving track, offering a meditation on life with the wonderfully simple lyric, “there are things that drift away like our endless, numbered days.” That its lyric should define this record seems entirely appropriate as that song has come to do exactly that for me as a listener. It was the first Iron & Wine album I bought, a few years ago when on holiday, and I thought it sounded rather nice but didn’t exactly fall head over heels.
Weirdly, it was the 2009 rarities and b-sides record ‘Around The Well’ that reignited my interest in the band, Sam Beam’s voice perfectly suiting the mood I was in at that point in time. As a result, I ended up with another copy of this album after I spotted a vinyl copy during my time spent with ‘Around The Well’. But still I didn’t really understand how great ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ is. I do now. That Christmas morning, I was utterly floored by ‘Passing Afternoon’ and had to sneak off later that afternoon to sit quietly in a back room and listen to the rest of the album. I’ve played it numerous times since – as many as four times in one day – and I’ve been absolutely charmed. It really should have been in the list I’ve only just finished writing about and I suspect I’ve found a firm favourite in this album. Funny how these things happen. I was watching the double-parter conclusion to Season Four of House just before Christmas and ‘Passing Afternoon’ was featured during the scenes when Wilson knows that Amber is going to die and I was reminded of this beautiful but neglected track. I presume that’s why it was floating in my head when I needed to choose one song out of thousands on Christmas Day.
I’ve since realised that its parent album contains eleven additional, almost equally excellent tracks that I hadn’t really spent long enough with. There’s no ‘big number’ and it is largely an album of sweetly sung, laidback folk pieces but they are beautifully crafted songs, each and every one. ‘Naked As We Came’ and ‘Sodom, South Georgia’ are cut from similarly simple cloth as ‘Passing Afternoon’, the latter of the two considering when “Papa died smiling” and “while my girl lady Edith was born”. Beam manages to somehow deploy emotive imagery and invoke a strong sense of melancholy without losing hope. This is not a depressing record. Indeed, I find it strangely warming and comforting and I’ve almost surprised myself by the number of immediate repeat listens it’s had this week. I so rarely play the same album twice, back to back, but it’s been happening most mornings.
The winding plucked guitar sounds that open ‘On Your Wings’, and in so doing open the album proper, are deliciously sparse, much like the rest of the material here. Beam’s economy is, in fact, his great strength and so much of Iron & Wine’s music is in the quietly affecting mould. ‘Cinder And Smoke’ features a repeated vocal refrain which I can best transcribe as “Aye, yi, yi, yai, yeah” over its concluding minutes which is as nagging as any chartbusting chorus and a fine example of how much of this album works. The hooks aren’t immediately obvious, and often it’ll be little bits of harmony or a twiddly guitar part that does the trick. These are musical moments you play over in your head when the records not there, rather than vocal lines you shout along with after four pints and seven mini sausage rolls.
Having never previously spent enough time with this record, I’m starting to wonder how many records in my collection I think are ‘good’ but might actually turn out to be truly great with a bit more attention. That leads me ‘A Week With…’ whereby one of those very albums will get dug out and given repeated plays over a week in the hope of shedding a little more light on its greatness. Or, it may actually prove that some of the stuff I thought was quite good was actually a bit shit. Feel free to fling suggestions for albums for this feature via Twitter, where it’s @justplayed or you can comment or email if you’d rather.