In the 14 years since the collaborative In The Reins, Calexico has released five full-length studio albums, while Sam Beam of Iron & Wine has released six. Musically, neither side of the collaboration remains in the same place as 2005, but more influential for Years to Burn are those years in between.
The distance between the two collaborations shows most starkly in the songwriting, in the perspective gained during those years, and the accumulated experiences that can alter how people view the world, and themselves.
Overall, the songs on In the Reins had the feel of fables, like much of Beam’s earlier work. In contrast, the lyrics on Years to Burn is more reflective, or centered on images and fleeting moments, a songwriter’s observations rendered like impressionist paintings.
Also a change this time around is a collaboration in the songwriting itself. Burns contributed, and other ideas were improvised and then fleshed out in the quick studio sessions. And where In the Reins had Beam as songwriter and Calexico as band, Years to Burn is balanced differently, with regular Iron & Wine players Sebastian Steinberg on bass and Rob Burger on keyboard, and Paul Neihaus (who’s played with both) on pedal steel, joining Calexico’s Joey Burns, John Convertino and Jacob Valenzuela.
The opening two songs, “What Heaven’s Left” and “Midnight Sun,” set the tone and while there’s a comfort in hearing Beam, Burns and Convertino together again, it’s clear that Years to Burn is a more layered, versatile record than its predecessor. Horns and piano give “What Heaven’s Left” a joyful buoyancy, while “Midnight Sun,” sung by Burns, is a mesmerizing slow burn that crescendos like Calexico’s “All Systems Red.”
The noir-ish instrumental “Outside El Paso” follows, which helps set the template for the album’s 8-minute centerpiece track. Expansive and divergent, “The Bitter Suite” is a combination of three parts, “Pájaro,” “Evil Eye,” and “Tennessee Train.” The song begins as a minor key ballad, sung in Spanish by Valenzuela, before deconstructing itself into a jazz-inflected instrumental, a familiar bit of controlled chaos for Calexico fans. After the stormy middle section departs, Beam’s voice steps in as the gentle narrator for the song’s heartbreaking conclusion.
Album closer “In Your Own Time” reflects the Nashville recording sessions, with a soft shuffle that takes the collaboration further onto the country-ish end of the spectrum than either Calexico or Iron & Wine tend to go. It’s a surprise, feeling more like a direct response to the In the Reins sessions than anything else on Years to Burn, but a welcome one. There’s an optimistic note to the album’s closing lines, “Someone will catch you, if you want to fall,” in the sense that optimism is a choice to make, one that results in a life with more hope, love and gratitude.
Calexico and Iron & Wine make for a wonderful collaboration, the constituent elements enhancing one another so much that it’s a shame this second joint album came a whole 14 years after the first. Like sunshine through trees, the music that comes from Calexico and Iron & Wine together has a timeless and simple magic.