Upon first listen, Beast Epic — the first album of new solo material from Iron & Wine's Sam Beam in four years — seems a bit too easy to dislike. His last album, 2013's Ghost on Ghost, was marred by production and arrangements that favoured smooth jazz and AM gold, and his latest LP seems to move even further into dad rock territory; Beam seems to be channelling the Deadhead inside of him, filling the 11-track LP with slick production and loose structures that defined the worst of jam band schlock.
Yet, there's something about strong core songwriting that can save an album that sounds this annoyingly self-conscious. While the grit, intimacy and studio hum of Iron & Wine's early material is gone, it seems as Beam has moved into a new era of composition; he knows exactly where to take a melody, as he makes apparent in tracks like the mantra-like "Claim Your Ghost," the shimmering, sunlight-drenched "Song in Stone" and the wonderfully structure-less "Last Night."
Elsewhere though, the whispered background vocals of "Bitter Truth" and the horrendous lyrics of "Thomas County Law" unfortunately distract the listener from the great songs Beam has written. It's noble to see Iron & Wine trying to take his songs into a different direction, but it's a shame that he lacks the confidence to allow these great songs to show off their personality without the help of inane studio glossiness. (Sub Pop)