Woman King

Band: Iron & Wine
Album: Woman King
Best song: The title track is gorgeous.
Worst song: It’s only, like, six songs.

I wrote a little bit on this before, but my first impressions of certain albums and/or bands are often really wrong. In the case of Iron & Wine, I thought Sam Beam’s first album — 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle — to be cheap, lo-fi singer/songwriter fare with a geographical placement I couldn’t understand.


In my defense, I did see potential in Beam’s work, if I remember correctly. I loved his voice, but the first album felt (and still feels, sometimes) half-done, with tape hiss and poorly-recorded guitars. Our Endless Numbered Days added a few instruments later and Beam’s melodies, references and arrangement sounded much better.

Of course, I&W’s third album was a revelation. It remains one of my favorite albums of this decade (screw you, Pitchfork, for leaving “The Boy With The Coin” off your stupid list.).

Not to retread the point, but The Shepherd’s Dog is an extension of an EP he recorded a few years before, the subject of this review. Woman King begins with a thumping, clapping singalong and ends with a circling, muted kaleidoscope of a song. In all points between, Beam mostly sings of the fairer sex with a biblical tinge, one of his strengths. Passionate while still intimate, it is a wonderful prelude to Beam’s best work.

Indeed, Lilith is a figure in mysticism, supposedly Adam’s first wife. She wasn’t too down with being the lesser sex. As written in The Alphabet of Ben Sira:

After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’ He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air.

You can imagine how that went down.

Nevertheless, the song’s lyric backs up this reading:

Garden wall of eden, full of spiderbites and all your lovers.
We were born to fuck each other, one way or another
But I’ll only lie, down by the waterside at night

The song’s circular guitar line is gorgeous over Beam’s hushed vocals. In it, he sounds like he’s singing directly at the listener, an intimate vocal as ever.

“Jezebel” similarly exalts a biblical villianness. While the titular character has become a synonymn for “evil woman” in modern culture, Beam empathizes with her:

Who’s seen Jezebel?
She was born to be the woman we could blame
Make me a beast half as brave
I’d be the same

I have a friend who is a similar fan of Iron & Wine. She was in town recently and we discussed my love — and her not-love — of The Shepherd’s Dog. Her reasoning is the earlier I&W stuff is better.

And while I disagree with the sentiment, I can understand it. Let’s say I loved The Creek Drank the Cradle and found some comfort in it.

Like any relationship, shit changes. Sometimes, it’s mutual — Death Cab for Cutie and I will always have We Have the Facts, but those days are over — and sometimes, it’s not.

I fell in love with I&W and grew with the band. I&W and I went through a lot; there was college and post-college. There was a Postal Service cover. There was stuff happening. I think I did my part as a fan.

And then shit changed. I&W did something different. The relationship changed.

Woman King is a different thing. There are pieces of familiarity, but it’s different. Just as going to dinner at a familiar diner with an ex feels like a rerun, “Jezebel” sounds like something from earlier records. It’s watching TV with a head on a shoulder. It’s the accidental use of a pet name.

But, ultimately, “Freedom Hands Like Heaven” or the title track or “Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song)” are different. I&W has a new boyfriend or doesn’t want you or is in a different place. Familiarity, while easy and comfortable, is not what you think it is. It’s different.

Maybe you cry and maybe you yearn for the past. Maybe you pout and search for signs of the past in the new. Maybe you convince yourself of clues that really mean nothing. Maybe you think you’re happy that things are different. Maybe you convince yourself that you love the new sound. And maybe you do.

And ultimately, you move on. You see the old records for what they are and you lament the change. But, you move on. Because you can’t make a band be something it is not anymore.

You don’t really have a choice.

I love Woman King. My relationship with the band is such that we evolved in a lovely way. Some of that is an evolution in my character. With so many bands — Elliott Smith, Death Cab, Cat Power, etc. — I thought the previous efforts to be the only ones worth my time. I didn’t grow with the band.

Woman King, to me, is I&W’s second-best release (after The Shepherd’s Dog, of course). It’s a short bit, but a great one.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

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