Samuel Beam, best known by his stage moniker Iron and Wine, is perhaps the most prolific of today’s so-called neo-folk artists, producing over a dozen full-length albums, EPs, and other assorted works since his 2002 debut The Creek Drank the Cradle. It’s no wonder, then, that a collection of Beam’s unreleased pieces would materialize as a hefty double album bursting at the seams with his trademark brand of thoughtful but rustic poetry. Yet no matter how wonderfully Around the Well showcases the skillful humility of Beam’s narratives, it is continually marred by the curse of many double albums before it: Akin to a dinner guest who has run out of interesting things to say long before the main course has arrived, Around the Well is ungainly, unable to carry its weight beyond its initial charm.
That’s not say the album is a waste of time: Beam is forever quiet and yet unceasingly strained, demonstrating a kind of stressful intimacy that conjures up the raw sounds of Beck’s 1994 indie release Stereopathetic Soulmanure. Much like that near-ancient bootleg, Around the Well offers a lo-fi, almost achingly primitive slice of unsuspecting artistry. The resultant music evokes feelings of blatant voyeurism, as if the listener were spying on an unwary musician in the asylum of his bedroom studio. Vocals are painfully whispered and acoustics plucked simply, both carrying an unpretentious charm that escapes most modern folk artists.
Still, Around the Well will be too unpolished and singular for some, with little of the harmonic quirkiness and other musical tics that endeared so many to similarly-naked works such as Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Beam attempts nothing fancy here, letting the compilation rest on its own plainspoken sincerity and pastoral allure. At times that lack of gloss is wonderfully alluring, as with the all-too-brief lilt of “Communication Cups and Someone’s Coat,” but begins to wear before long, until Around the Well becomes nothing more than an unyielding wall of docile sound. In the end, the collection’s bevy of elegance, purity, and passion is simply 10 tracks too long.