On Iron & Wine's 2017 album, Beast Epic, Sam Beam took a conscious step back. Not only is he recording for Sub Pop again, he's stripped away most of the high production values, backing vocalists, horn sections, and orchestras that were all over his more recent work like spangles on an old denim jacket. This record was done with a small group, recorded relatively simply, and often recorded live as well. Beam and his cohorts take a less-is-more approach to coloring in his suitably autumnal melodies, and get a sound that compares favorably with the classic Our Endless Numbered Days LP. It's a more seasoned, more confident and expansive version of that album for sure, as the years have given Beam a richer tapestry of life experiences to draw from. His musical ideas are also more mature, and though the arrangements are simpler, they are still full of little tricks and sticky hooks. Beam's singing has only improved too. He never has to try too hard to convey the feelings behind the lyrics, and with each album he feels more and more wise. Tracks like "Thomas County Law" and "The Truest Stars We Know" have a burnished, ages-old feel to them, like he's telling a story from the 1800s that still rings true. Without a single misstep, the rest of the album swings from catchy country ballads ("Bitter Truth") to evocative mini-epics that come off like Van Morrison gone to seed ("Song in Stone"), rambling indie folk tales that feel very shaggy ("About a Bruise"), and slow, sad love songs ("Summer Clouds"). On the whole, Beast Epic has a lilting grace and pleasing simplicity that was missing from the last few Iron & Wine albums, and it's good to hear Beam working on a small scale again. To continue building the sound out into something bigger probably would have led to a collapse, or at the very least a hollow center. No worries of that here, as Beam keeps the operation small and fills the center with lots of wistful emotion and tender feelings. Despite the seeming return to an earlier approach, it's not an exercise in nostalgia or a retracing of steps. Beam is too restless an artist for that, and the strength of the songwriting and the nimble performances keep it from feeling that way. It may not be a step forward, but it is a strong step in a very pleasing direction, especially for fans of a more unfiltered Iron & Wine.