Back in late 2006, when I went to see Iron and Wine play with Calexico at London’s Forum, Sam Beam played a song that immediately struck me as a masterwork. It sounded unfamiliar to me then, so I assumed it was a forthcoming track, and since then I’d been unable to track it down (all I remembered was a haunting melody and a lyric about the ‘pearly gates’). Thanks largely to The Hype Machine, surely one of the web’s very best music resources, I’ve managed to identify it as ‘The Trapeze Swinger’. It’s an epic, sprawling, highly evocative song dense with surreal allusion that appeared on Iron and Wine’s ‘Such Great Heights’ EP from 2004, a release that completely passed me by at the time. The title track from the EP is a melancholic acoustic reversion of The Postal Service song, but it’s really Beam’s own song that best encapsulates his considerable talents.
‘The Trapeze Swinger’ provides further evidence that Beam may be the best lyricist currently at work in American music. His style is distinctive and he is a superb manipulator of language, mostly abandoning conventions in favour of unusual imagery and uncomfortable juxtapositions of ideas. It’s somehow fitting that Beam originally intended to pursue a career as a cinematographer. The song’s lyric is tightly structured, with each verse beginning with the line ‘Please, remember me…’, but the large number of verses and peculiar flow leave plenty of space for free-flowing expression perhaps influenced by stream of consciousness writers.
As a result, there’s also plenty of room for interpretation as to the song’s meaning, although it would appear to ostensibly be about an ageing man reflecting on a more youthful relationship that turned sour, and regretting its failure. The song’s central metaphor is that the fleeting, precarious, and razor sharp danger of a trapeze act seems to reflect the fragile nature of relationships. The trapeze swinger also perhaps symbolises the unique power a song can have – it may be over in minutes, but it can linger in the mind with clarity and conviction. It’s such a simple notion that it’s a wonder nobody seems to have really explored it before – certainly not in such a haunting and moving fashion anyway.
The words effortlessly meld descriptions of vivid dreams and ‘real’ memories, rich in particular detail (Halloween face painting, counting passing cars etc), perhaps verifying Australian writer Patrick White’s contention that ‘there can be little to chose between the reality of illusion and the illusion of reality’ (there can be little doubt that Beam is strongly influenced by great novelists, perhaps more so than by other lyricists – William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy would also seem obvious reference points). The strange line ‘please remember me, as in the dream we had as rug-burned babies’ seems particularly extraordinary, as if this was a relationship destined to happen from birth, but also somehow doomed to fail. There’s a peculiar, powerful fatalism at the heart of Beam’s work. There’s also intelligent wordplay (the subtle reminiscing of an intimate encounter in ‘the car behind the carnival’) and striking imagery (the line that stuck in my mind about the pearly gates having ‘such eloquent graffiti’)
Beam’s protagonist in ‘The Trapeze Swinger’ seems almost crippled by regret, but the song concludes on an ambiguous ray of light. If he ever does reach the pearly gates, the protagonist will redeem himself (‘I’ll do my best to make a drawing/of God and Lucifer, a boy and girl/An angel kissin’ on a sinner….all around the frightened Trapeze Swinger’). This final line is central to the song’s impact – even the daring Trapeze Swinger is as vulnerable as any other individual human, fundamentally uncertain of how to judge difficult situations.
There’s an obvious musical criticism that can be levelled against ‘The Trapeze Swinger’. It is based on one very brief, perhaps even insubstantial, melodic theme repeated over and over again for the song’s (reasonably lengthy) duration. There is no dynamic variation whatsoever and no distinction between verse and chorus. The song simply journeys on until it has reached its final meditation. The sweet, delicate harmonised backing vocals that open the track underpin Beam’s beautifully understated performance throughout. Yet this approach is precisely how the song achieves its remarkable power – it feels like a compelling, unstoppable story, twisting and turning but never quite veering from its consistent path.
The music also rewards close attention considerably – this is a defiantly subtle and brilliantly executed arrangement, whereby different instruments and figures slip in and out in an intelligent and unobtrusive manner. Sometimes it’s slide guitar punctuations that occupy the foreground, at others it’s upright walking bass. Towards the end, the bass drops out, its role assumed by the left hand of the piano. Beam also adds some subtle electronics that fill out the texture a little. All this helps to give Beam’s musings additional power, highlighting key lines and ideas whilst sustaining a particular mood. With ‘The Trapeze Swinger’, Beam appears to have achieved something akin to an American Folk Minimalism – and in its own way, this is a strikingly original record whilst simultaneously rustic and traditional.
This is a great song about the overwhelming burden of memory that also hints at how retrospect can often stifle us. It shouldn’t be left to languish in obscurity as an additional track on a very under-promoted EP.