In Years to Burn, Iron & Wine and Calexico team up for their second collaboration since 2005. With 14 years between projects, expectations were bound to be fairly high from fans of both artists. Years to Burn adequately meets those expectations and provides something that is familiar from the artists’ styles, but is advanced upon in some areas to give it a unique touch.
The opener to this album, “What Heaven’s Left”, is a love song that is charming in all areas; lyrically, instrumentally, and vocally. The track begins with soothing vocals and soft instrumentals that ramp up to a profound, almost gospel-like, chorus that resonates with anyone familiar with unconditional love and adoration for another person. The songwriting in this track is wonderful, as is to be expected from these artists given their track record. Throughout “What Heaven’s Left”, there are some country-inspired elements, such as a pedal steel guitar offering enjoyable sweeps and swoons behind some lyrics that would fit any older country tune. The song ends with a euphoric instrumental where horns emphasize the uplifting nature of the song.
“Midnight Sun” is next, a song that is more or less a soothing cruise-like track with a steady riff and drum pattern, with some more backing pedal steel. This song, while mostly calm and constant, is still a pleasant track, and a great transition piece to what is, in my opinion, the best song on the album; “Father Mountain”.
Where “What Heaven’s Left” offers insight into love in the present, “Father Mountain” tells the story of a past love. “Father Mountain” is the most “complete” song on Years to Burn; all of its pieces flow together very naturally, emphasizing the emotion the song brings out in its lyrics and vocal performance. This track paints a clear picture in its storytelling, the various scenes described in its lyrics playing out like scenes in a movie. The crazy thing about this song is that it has no clear chorus but it also does not feel like it needs one. The line “While my father built a mansion on a mountain” at the beginning of each verse is enough to substitute for this.
“Follow the Water” continues the trend of deep lyricism and soft instrumentals. Iron & Wine especially has excelled in the past at creating “cozy” and “warm” songs, and this one is Sam Beam at his best in achieving that vibe. The country influence again proves strong here with lyrics involving “summer flowers”, “small town thugs” and “lightning bugs”. The chorus in this song is the true high point and one that pleasantly gets stuck in your head.
The weak points of Years to Burn all reside in the songs after “Follow the Water”. “The Bitter Suite”, an 8-minute long soundscape of sorts with three definitive segments, falls flat of the grand expectations I would set for a track of this length from these two artists. The first segment, “Pajaro”, is a bit disjointed and the transition into “Evil Eye” is clunky. “Evil Eye” and “Tennessee Train” are more entertaining but fall short in comparison to the earlier tracks. Everything from the 2-minute mark through the 5-minute mark prepares you for some epic crescendo but instead the lead-up instrumental reduces to one of the softest pieces on the album. The title track, “Years to Burn”, offers some smooth horn work throughout, but overall is too slow to really get into it. “In Your Own Time” closes out the album with its most country song. All aspects of this track scream country; a simple drum beat, steady rhythm guitar, backing piano melodies, lyrics painting nature imagery, and group vocals throughout. This proves to be a great closer to the album but is somewhat corny in its delivery in some places and feels like a “gather-round-y’all” type of track I would hear around a fire at camp or in an old-western saloon.
Overall, Years to Burn contains some beautiful emotionally-packed pieces within it. The smoothness, warmth, and imagery conveyed through all the components in Years to Burn’s best tracks elevate this album high above its weaker points, which aren’t many. Sam Beam continues to write, and exceptionally deliver, relatable and meaningful songs. The welcome addition of Calexico to this music offers a unique touch to the standard we expect from Iron & Wine tracks and the payoff is thoroughly entertaining.
Overall Score: B
Best Tracks: Father Mountain, Follow the Water, What Heaven’s Left
Weakest Tracks: The Bitter Suite, Years to Burn