Albums that attract dramatic critical attention tend to be those that set themselves apart from the music of the day. Listeners are often caught by a newcomer’s brilliant debut or seasoned artist’s bold departure of form. Love Letter for Fire – an indie-folk collection of duets by Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop – doesn’t fit any of these descriptions. But I don’t think these musicians were aiming for a shocker or chart topper. I say Fire is worth a listen – repeated listens, even – precisely because it has such classic warmth and familiar ease of style.
Both Beam and Hoop have carved out respectable singer-songwriter careers. Beam is perhaps the better known of the two, for his role in the folk group Iron & Wine. The band, active since 2002, has a large catalog of tender and reflective songs led by Beam’s whispery vocals. This is Beam and Hoop’s first collaborative effort, however, and the addition of her clear, tight voice should make this a fresh listen for devoted Iron & Wine fans.
The male-female folk duets on the album exist within a tradition. In a recent interview, Beam mentioned that the songs reminded him of duets by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, as well as George Jones and Tammy Wynette. He also said he appreciated the form, “because the narrative is expanded. It’s not just a monologue. It’s a conversation, and so it gets complicated.”
The back and forth, call and answer format of Fire creates an intriguing tension and also makes for satisfying moments of harmony. Complexity is also achieved through layered instrumentation, which often places acoustic guitar at the forefront and then lets soft piano, violin and cello blend in.
Several of Beam and Hoop’s songs are about love. (But for those wondering, the duo has made it clear that they are not romantically linked.) Thankfully the lyrics have a poetic intricacy beyond that of saccharine romantic melodies. They pair narratives of human longing and joy with questions of the soul and visions of nature – of sea and sky, valleys and trees, smoke and sunlight. Memory is a frequent theme.
Even the quiet, simply orchestrated songs ponder life’s temptations, missteps, and vulnerabilities. “Music isn’t safe” the duo sings in “We Two are a Moon,” a song with a dreamy, clip-clop rhythm. A few verses later comes this lyric, radiant with simple truth: “We don’t look for failure but it’s teaching us the world.”
You don’t have to listen hard for religious allusions or imagery on this album, either. Lyrics describe wind that will “baptize your skin,” and mention heaven, hymns and methods of prayer. This verse from “Midas Tongue” has incarnational weight: “God is breathing on the shore / We become his words / Disappear and reemerge.” This is a musical conversation informed by a richly spiritual world.
For musicians it must take guts at times to be gentle – to trust that there’s space in this often busy, noisy world for music that drifts and rests rather than stirs and distracts. Fire is not an album to dance to or clap along with. Instead, it’s music to for a leisurely walk or long drive. I’ve enjoyed it several times as background music while I work at my desk. Its spring release is fitting, too, since it would make an excellent soundtrack for beach afternoons or lazy evenings on the porch. (If you’re looking to sustain the mellow flow, though, I suggest skipping the choppy track “Chalk it up to Chi” and maybe pressing repeat on the pleasantly breezy “One Way to Pray.”)
If my typical listening habits hold true, I’ll likely reach a point when I have overplayed Beam and Hoop’s collaboration and grown tired of it. I might then set it aside for a while – a few months, or a year, or longer – in favour of louder, livelier music.
But if such a break happens, I’ll be glad to come back to this album. Perhaps my return will feel similar to spring’s reappearance, when I notice long-empty branches blinking out with green leaves and linger in that welcome sight, at ease with what’s unfolding.