Beast Epic is Sam Beam's sixth album, and first back on his launching label, Sub Pop, under the Iron & Wine banner since 2007's The Shepherd's Dog. As such, the reviews are tending to talk about cyclicality and returns to form. And true enough, while the production here is richer than the lo-fi aesthetic that announced I&W's debut The Creek Drank the Cradle in 2002, Beam has returned to acoustic restraint after some sonically peripatetic travels. Die-hard fans will probably point to Beam's quiet, emotively gorgeous and conviction-filled singing on Beast Epic, laud a well-earned maturity in the new songs' lyrics and revel mellowly in a new communique from an old friend. But even a supportively inclined fan-in-passing might reasonably listen to this same album and hear an overly content mediocrity, about as necessary as Matthew Sweet singing Ray LaMontagne songs to himself in the shower. Beast Epic isn't as freshly, endearingly raw as The Creek Drank the Cradle, and it isn't nearly as idiosyncratically interesting as anything on Kiss Each Other Clean, just for example. Whatever you dig most about Beam—and there's lots to dig—it's hard to imagine this being the record you play to get it. That's cool. Art ≠ progress.
Iron & Wine plays the Wilma Tue., Oct. 17, at 8 PM. $30-$40