The title of Calexico and Iron & Wine’s new album, Years to Burn, feels like a cheeky acknowledgment of the decade and change that have elapsed since they first worked together on the 2005 EP In the Reins. Back then, Sam Beam wrote and recorded somber folk songs from the safety of his bedroom, notching his belt with two EPs and two albums at the start of his career; he authored all of In the Reins’ songs, and Calexico, sporting almost twice as many chapters in their own discography, fleshed out his songcraft with their immense catalog of styles and peerless musicianship.
In the Reins wound up being a standout project for both, and in the intervening years they’ve enjoyed a handful of reunions: Beam provided vocals on Carried to Dust in 2008 and Edge of the Sun in 2015, while Calexico frontman Joey Burns appeared on The Shepherd’s Dog in 2007. But Years to Burn sees Beam and Burns and their cohorts—John Convertino, Rob Burger, Paul Neihaus, Jacob Valenzuela, and Sebastian Steinberg—making new music after 14 years spent furthering their signatures and identities. Years to Burn proves that the time spent waiting on a second collaboration was worth it, but more meaningfully the album feels like the product of a cohesive unit rather than a tag team.
Years to Burn rings with Beam’s soulful sobriety and Calexico’s gusty American Southwestern aesthetic, but the songwriting—again, primary credit goes to Beam—is the maypole around which the two bands braid their influences and proclivities. Unraveling one from the other is impossible. Take “In Your Own Time,” the album’s closer: Beams and Burns swap lead vocal duties from verse to verse and package the down-home maxims of the former’s lyrics (“In your own time, you’ll drink something evil / Sing like an old crow and worship the land”) with the carefree sway of saloon music. Think of it as “Forever Young” by way of the Old West, something only Calexico and Iron & Wine would come up with and yet something totally new for both of them.
Head back to the beginning of the record and that newness holds. “What Heaven’s Left” is a humbled song, the narrator singing praise to another—maybe a parent, mom or dad, or perhaps a lover—for showing them apparently inexhaustible grace and patience at the best and worst of times. “You take my fear and give me a fist,” proclaims Beam. “When I come to fight you come with a kiss.” It’s a story of graciousness and awe, the latter baked right into the song’s refrain: “What wave of a wild hand called you into this world?” For anybody lucky enough to know a love so saintly, the wonder Beam expresses here likely feels intimately familiar.
Equally as familiar is the song’s country strumming, until Valenzuela, with one minute to spare, comes in with his trumpet, slowly lifting the track heavenward as it draws to a close. That send-off is straight out of Calexico’s playbook, but the transformative effect it has on “What Heaven’s Left” feels instructive. Years to Burn isn’t about Calexico playing off of Iron & Wine and vice versa. It’s about merging their sounds into new ones, particularly on “The Bitter Suite,” a song sung in 3 chapters—“Pajaro,” “Evil Eye,” and “Tennessee Train.” Though disjointed at first blush, the song segues from a haunting Spanish-language bird’s dirge, to a strutting two-chord ditty, to a downbeat acoustic ode to abandonment (“Anything wasn’t enough to make her stay / Trains leave Tennessee moaning as they roll away”) over the course of 8 minutes, each segment capturing in kind Calexico’s Latin influences alongside Iron & Wine’s solemn take on American folk music.
It’s frankly a cheat of sorts to file Years to Burn under either Calexico or Iron & Wine; the album suggests the birth of an entirely new band built from the parts and pieces of both rather than a meeting of minds between musicians. Grant that this is irrelevant to the quality of their musicianship, and that Years to Burn remains a robust album regardless of appellation. In 8 tracks, the two long-running bands and collaborators craft compelling narratives about time’s passage (“In Your Own Time,” “Years to Burn,” and “The Bitter Suite”) and nostalgic recollections of loves past (“Father Mountain”) and present (“What Heaven’s Left”). But they’ve also presented a compelling argument that maybe they ought to only record together from here on out. Years to Burn distills the qualities that distinguish Calexico and Iron & Wine as individual artists. If it’s another 14 until we get to hear them play once more, it’ll be a sin against their talents.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.