The Anniversary

Our Endless Numbered Days Turns 20

Sub Pop
Sub Pop

It’s hard to hear it now like I heard it then. In the months and years following its release — 20 years ago this Saturday — Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days became so successful and so influential that it’s now almost more of an archetype than an album. It’s one of only ten Sub Pop releases to ever go gold (follow-up The Shepherd’s Dog is another, surely in part due to runoff from this album’s popularity). It also stands as a symbol for a not entirely reputable moment in indie music history. Two decades later, I struggle to get past the Zach Braff of it all, the way Sam Beam and his acolytes became inextricably linked with prestige treacle like Grey’s Anatomy and This Is Us. You know how everyone who bought The Velvet Underground & Nico started a band? Everyone who burned Our Endless Numbered Days to CD-R grew a beard and whisper-sighed at open mic night.

Not that it was only dudes gently swaying to Beam’s acoustic lullabies. Part of the reason Iron & Wine blew up like that is that this record appealed to such a broad constituency. It was soft and pretty enough to be embraced by the kinds of people who think Ed Sheeran is profound. It was threaded with the kind of Southern Gothic roots music for which O Brother Where Are Thou? had exposed a gargantuan audience. Pitchfork readers (hi) had already tapped in on 2002’s The Creek Drank The Cradle and were happy to be assured by Amanda Petrusich’s 8.6 Best New Music review that Beam’s balladry was still OK to enjoy now that he’d made the leap from lo-fi demos to sparkling studio recordings. The winds of indie music trends were shifting in a folksy direction, and a vast cross-section of society was preparing to collectively put a bird on it. The world was ready.

Our Endless Numbered Days would not have been the album for the moment if Beam had not delivered some of the most achingly beautiful folk-pop songs of his generation. Again, “Naked As We Came” suffers from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” effect where it’s difficult to push past the context and the history and hear the music for what it is, but just like people who don’t acknowledge the genius of Nirvana’s biggest hit are dimwits, you have to be a real misanthrope not to appreciate the glittering perfection of Beam’s fingerpicking or the way his smooth, breathy vocals settle into his sister Sarah’s sweet harmonies. The lyrics preemptively undercut your dismissal that they’re too gooey and romantic by leaning heavily on the death in “til death do us part.”

When Beam applied this approach to the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” for Garden State, it proved that the style could easily be turned into shtick, and when the song soundtracked an M&M’s commercial, it marked the aesthetic’s tipping point into cliché. That cover is awful on a this-must-be-a-joke level, and in hindsight, it caused me not to engage with Our Endless Numbered Days as deeply as I’d done with Iron & Wine’s debut. In 2004, I was connecting more with some of the stranger indie folk releases at the time, stuff like Seven Swans and Sung Tongs that edged up against the freak-folk zeitgeist. With all due apologies to the Sam Beam stans, sometimes you sign up to write about an album because it’s important to the world, not because it’s important to you. But listening back to Our Endless Numbered Days, I’m reminded how many of these songs imprinted themselves on me back then.

Music had been a hobby for Beam. He’d grown up in South Carolina and made his way across the South studying art and film, with stops in Virginia, Florida, and back home in Columbia. On a whim, he moved to Miami, where he was based when Iron & Wine broke out, because he was working on a screenplay with someone who lived there. He only started writing and recording songs because it was a creative outlet he could pursue at home on the cheap. “You know honestly, I didn’t get to make too many films,” he told SPIN in 2004. “I wrote a couple and worked on a bunch in film school. And then I got out of school and started working and didn’t have the money to make my own films. So I started doing music because it was a lot more immediate.”

In that interview, Beam talked about how his film background impacted his approach to songwriting: “You know, when you write screenplays, that’s pretty much all you do – description of action and dialogue, for the most part. So I try to apply that to music, but at the same time, there’s a lot of poetic license that you have in songs. And at the end of the day, I’m not writing screenplays, I’m writing lyrics, so I can pretty much do whatever I want to.” Our Endless Numbered Days is full of striking images that are easy to imagine on screen — that scene of dying naked in your lover’s arms, sure, but also the implied violence of “Teeth In The Grass” or the surreal romance of “Love And Some Verses.”

The album was produced in a way that maintained the magic aura around his lyrics, even as it lifted Iron & Wine out of the realm of 4-track recordings. The crackling, muffled quality of The Creek Drank The Cradle had been essential to its charm; it made the album feel like a lost artifact, especially with Beam singing about mountains and roosters and whatnot. Working with Brian Deck, the Chicago producer who’d helped the rugged, scrappy Modest Mouse achieve a kind of hallucinogenic hi-fi, Beam brought his music into crystalline focus. He continued to sing as if trying not to wake a baby — during that SPIN interview, he had to pause multiple times to tend to his young children on the playground — but whereas listening to his debut felt like eavesdropping, now it was like Beam was whispering directly into your ear. The arrangements were still stark and uncluttered for the most part, but now the guitar tones flickered like a reflective surface. A certain kind of refined organic beauty had been distilled into a dozen little gems.

The pattern doesn’t hold up through the end, but Our Endless Numbered Days more or less alternates between two types of songs. There are the slightly eerie minor-key tracks that tend to deploy percussive elements and err on the side of bluesy Americana — “On Your Wings,” “Free Until They Cut Me Down,” and so forth — and then there are the gorgeous ballads that are like Elliott Smith or Nick Drake with the rough edges shaved off, depression and anxiety giving way to awestruck contentment. I tend to prefer the softest, most tender moments, the starry-eyed swoons rather than the windswept Southern mythology. That rootsy material foretold the direction Beam would go next, when Iron & Wine turned into more of a jam band and less of a singer-songwriter project. I saw the band on tour supporting The Shepherd’s Dog, and I hated it. But leave Beam alone with a microphone and an acoustic guitar and I could listen to him sing about love all day.

Ultimately, though Iron & Wine helped set off an indie-folk wave that cascaded in many directions and calcified into a handful of overdone tropes, Our Endless Numbered Days fits just as well into a lineage of indie albums fit for soundtracking domestic bliss. You can slot reveries like “Passing Afternoon” and “Sunset Soon Forgotten” somewhere on a timeline between Yo La Tengo and Real Estate — exceptional music for basking in the glow of family life, for appreciating a little world built together while it lasts. Given the way those sounds were embraced by Hollywood, it’s now funny to read Beam, in a 2002 Pitchfork interview, dismissing Disney World as “just real… consumer-friendly.” But revisit this document of Beam at the peak of his powers, and you’ll remember why such soft music hit like a bomb.

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from The Anniversary