If there's ever been an album title that more neatly sums up a record's themes than Our Endless Numbered Days, I haven't heard it. On his second full-length, Sam Beam obsesses over life and love, but only in the shadow of bigger questions of death and legacy. And he continues to swim in the lush, naturalistic imagery that was so crucial to the success of his debut, 2002's The Creek Drank the Cradle.
When it comes to production, however, Beam swerves away from the hushed, lo-fi, straight-from-the-living-room sound of his earlier efforts. By comparison, Our Endless Numbered Days, his first studio-produced record, is positively light and airy. Even the twangy, ominous songs look for something positive -- redemption or liberation in death.
"Free until They Cut Me Down" features a character that finds freedom in the hangman's noose as he makes ambiguous cries of innocence. In "Naked as We Came," a couple talks about the desire to have their ashes spread and not to be "wasted in the ground" once they're gone. The first line of "Sodom, South Georgia" says it all: "Papa died smiling/ wide as the ring of the bell." This opens a simple portrait of devotion and understanding in the wake of death.
All in all, Our Endless Numbered Days offers a variety of ways to view death. If there's a view that isn't represented, it's the notion that death should be struggled against. Any fight should come in life.
Much of Beam's most provocative meditations on mortality come in songs that deal with how lovers remember each other in absence. The gorgeous "Each Coming Night" ends with a simple plea that anyone with a healthy sense of their own mortality will identify with: "Will you say to me when I'm gone/ 'Your face has faded but lingers on/ because light strikes a deal/ with each coming night.' " As this lyric suggests, Beam's tone is intimate; many of his lines sound like overheard whispers between lovers. Few characters populate the songs; Beam clearly prefers the simple straightforward first-person voice.
The overall effect is that of reading Romantic poetry -- maybe Keats or Wordsworth -- funneled through Southern Gothic imagery. That's not to say Endless Numbered is ever derivative. Quite the contrary; for all Beam's apparent understanding of the Romantic tradition of which he's a part, his writing is strikingly refreshing. Not only does the record take a welcome swerve away from the whispery aesthetic that serves him well, its lyrical candor and sophistication on the knottiest subject matter stands out from contemporary songwriting. His fragmented, minimalist, though heavily symbolic style says so much with so little. It captures both the beauty and terror of our limited time here -- the shivering realization that "a baby sleeps in all our bones, so scared to be alone."