"And no one is the savior they would like to be/The love song of the buzzard in the dogwood tree" —from "Lovesong of the Buzzard"

In case you haven't heard, banjos and slide guitars are back in style. Over the past few years, artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine—the stage/recording name for singer/songwriter Sam Beam—have inspired a folk revival in the indie music world.

Beam first drew notice in 2002 with his lo-fi debut The Creek Drank the Cradle, but it was his inclusion on the popular Garden State soundtrack two years later that guaranteed adoration on college campuses everywhere (including Wheaton College, where Beam is set to perform a solitary concert on February 15 between touring overseas). Drawing comparisons with Nick Drake, Iron & Wine has done much with sparse textures, winning listeners with elegant melodies, imagistic lyrics, and an intimate vocal delivery, as if he were planting confessions in your privileged ear.

Beam's sound expanded on subsequent releases (electric guitar!), evolving Iron & Wine into a full-sized outfit by 2007's The Shepherd's Dog. Though the banjo jangle hasn't vanished, it's joined here by playful piano, weaving string layers, electronic effects, sitar drones and more aggressive percussion, which is indicative of Beam's professed interest in African music.

Biblical references have also been a mainstay for Iron & Wine, though never more abundantly than on The Shepherd's Dog with allusions to God, the Devil, Noah, and more. However, though raised in a Christian home in South Carolina, Beam today considers himself an agnostic, explaining his songwriting to Relevant magazine by noting that the Bible is full of "characters that everyone understands, and it's a huge part of our culture." And though the Word serves as his source for "classical mythology," it should also be noted that the singer/songwriter has no qualms with using profanity throughout his work.

Take "Innocent Bones," for example, featuring history's first sibling rivalry, Cain and Abel. Beam describes them to Relevant as representing "duality in the individual," using their descendents to represent all of humanity and take aim at hypocritical Christians (using the f-bomb) unwilling to live the challenging life he calls us to: "Even the last of their brown eyed babies see/That the cartoon king has a tattoo of a bleeding heart/There ain't a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab, but they all want the scar."

Such social criticism reflects a shift in scale on this album. Beam's past songwriting emphasis on private relationships—mother and son, a pair of lovers—is appropriate for a husband and father of four who confesses reluctance to leave home for tours. On The Shepherd's Dog, however, his focus is on larger communities. "The Devil Never Sleeps" shows a town once "full of fathers in their army clothes," left in listless disarray where everyone is "lost at the crosswalk waiting for the other to go."

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Dysfunction of this magnitude suggests a more overarching problem with the world, which Beam admits to feeling in an interview with The Independent. "It's not a political propaganda record, but it's definitely inspired by political confusion because I was really taken aback when Bush got re-elected."

His mistrust of authority runs deep throughout The Shepherd's Dog. The rollicking "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car"—replete with densely swirling harmonies and dissonant strings—laments a king caught "beneath the borrowed car, righteous drunk and fumbling for the royal keys." The quasi-title track "Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)" undermines the guardian figure (a shepherd's dog) in the characterization of the canine's warning: "A little brown flea in the bottle of oil for your wool, wild hair/You'll never get him out of there." Even divine oversight is questioned. "Boy with a Coin" depicts three distinct scenes of suffering, each occasioned when "God left the ground to circle the world." To Beam, God's dizzying transcendence seems to separate him from his own creation, which is left to injure itself.

Yet Beam insists he is not writing propaganda. "For me it's more about suggesting than arguing a point," he tells Pitchfork. "I like throwing images together, which create meaning if you listen to it one time, but if you listen to it another time you might get a different meaning." Before landing his first record deal, Beam taught cinematography in Miami, and like a good modern poet, he prefers to show rather than tell. Instead of trying to discredit a religion or a president, he illustrates the uneasiness felt by a society in search of a reliable authority.

A highlight track is "Carousel," a shimmering ballad with delicate interplay between guitar and piano that belies its apocalyptic tenor. "When a cruel wind blew, every city father fell/Off the county carousel/While the dogs were eating snow/All our sons had sunk in a trunk of Noah's clothes," Beam sings of wartime catastrophe, a Leslie organ filtering his voice as if it were rising from the ocean floor. Robbed of its sons, a stunned civilization begins to collapse—"your grieving girls all died in their sleep, so the dogs all went unfed"—to the point that a "crackhead" plays Noah by building a boat, pledging to his neighbors only "the kinship of the kids in the riot squad." What hope is there, Beam asks, in a world of violence and prostrate "city fathers"?

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Very little, according to the scavenging bird in "Lovesong of the Buzzard" (excerpted above). The buzzard perches ironically in a dogwood tree (which is associated with the cross of Calvary by an anonymous fable), justifying its intent to consume a dying girl—"Tomorrow I'll be kissing on her blood red lips"—by appealing to its (and anyone else's) inability to help. The girl is no more hopeful of a savior in the song's somber closing lines: "Lucy tells me jokingly to wipe her brow/'With a pocket map to heaven' and the sun goes down."

Fueled by Beam's admitted "confusion," the dark images of insecurity throughout The Shepherd's Dog remind us of our need for a dependable figure to order our lives. Perhaps one day this gifted artist will rediscover Lucy's "pocket map" folded within the characters and imagery he uses in his songs.

Unless specified clearly, we are not implying whether this artist is or is not a Christian. The views expressed are simply the author's. For a more complete description of our Glimpses of God articles, click here