by John Wilson

A Praise Song for Jezebel

Iron & Wine at Wheaton College.

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Ah, reality, always catching me off–balance. There I was last Friday night at Wheaton College with friends Gary and Kathy Gnidovic and their son Daniel and his friend Veronica, come to hear Iron & Wine, the musical persona of a gifted singer/songwriter named Sam Beam. I've been listening to his stuff with great interest since it started showing up a few years ago, and most recently I've been listening to his new release, The Shepherd's Dog, but Wendy and I have never heard him live (and she missed this show, alas, since she was in California). His music (in my ears, anyway) has affinities with Dylan's ventures into the old American songbook, with the Decemberists and Puerto Muerto and Calexico (with whom he has in fact collaborated), but he has own his distinctive lexicon, his own spooky vibe. Like a lot of his artistic peers, alas, he's intent on keeping track of God's inexcusable failures—all the misery that followed "when God left the ground to circle the world," as "Boy with a Coin" puts it—not to mention the hypocrisies of Christians. It's a hard job, but somebody has to do it.

On the stage at Wheaton, he said that someone official had asked him to refrain from cursing—a theme he continued to riff on throughout the concert. Well, I love Wheaton College, but I wish the people responsible for such things hadn't felt the need to "protect" the audience—and the school's reputation—in that way. Still, as Sam Beam continued with his mocking jabs, I couldn't help but wonder if he's equally quick to mock the very different taboos he encounters in other venues. Of course in this case he wasn't mocking the audience—mostly students—so much as pandering to their conflicted emotions about the culture of their institution.

The response of the crowd was enthusiastic throughout. Most of the time I sat with my eyes shut, the better to attend to the music. We weren't near the stage, and my aging ears need all the help they can get. Even when I'm at home, listening to any one of several Iron & Wine CDs, I've had recourse to the web, where Sam Beam's lyrics can be found. You need that—at least I do—to absorb the poetry, to soak it up and soak in it. So when he did a song I hadn't heard before, I noticed.

"Who's seen Jezebel," he sang, and the song built from that opening to the high point of intensity in the entire concert. Jezebel, in this telling, is a scapegoat, "born to be the woman we could blame." (Where have we heard that before?) But she's more:

Who's seen Jezebel
She was gone before I ever got to say
Lay here, my love, you're the only shape I pray to

So read the lyrics to "Jezebel" I found next day on the web (hence, of course, subject to error), from a 2005 EP that I haven't heard, Woman King, and that I'll now check out. What I heard Friday night—when Sam Beam's voice became more passionately intense than at any other point in the show—was this: "you're the only God I pray to." Maybe I misheard. (If you were at the concert, please correct or confirm my impression, though the point is pretty much the same in either case.) And as I sat, eyes still closed, musing while the last vibrations of the song faded away, I heard thunderous applause. What were they applauding? The sentiments of the song? Or maybe just the Iron & Wineness of it. Much as I love women, and Woman, and one woman in particular, I couldn't join in. But I won't stop listening.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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