NEW YORK (AP) — Songwriter Sam Beam prefers to think of his career direction less as looking back and more as going full circle.
Whatever terminology is employed, Beam — who records under the name Iron & Wine — has returned both to the Sub Pop label where his career started and the warm, acoustic sound of his early material. His sixth album, "Beast Epic," comes out Friday and is much anticipated in the indie rock world. Some dates in his fall tour of small theaters are already sold out.
"You can't really listen to this record and say it sounds like the old records," Beam said. "There's a lot more going on. But at the same time, the approach felt familiar again. I was writing more introspective songs and approached the making of this record in a more intuitive way. It felt similar, but it felt like it took me doing all of the other records to get to this one."
The North Carolina-born Beam was a film professor who painted and wrote songs on the side before he caught the attention of Sub Pop, which released the first Iron & Wine disc in 2002.
He describes much of his subsequent work as trying on different sounds and styles to see what fits.
"I was just sort of doing music for a hobby and won the lottery, basically, and had a music career," he said. "So I had to figure out what I wanted to be, because I hadn't thought about it."
Beam makes some of the loveliest music in the indie rock world. He dates his melodic sense to the hymns he heard while going to church as a boy, and his parents' Motown records. He enjoys listening to harder stuff, to punk and metal, but he recognizes his strengths and what fits his voice.
Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop, said Beam has a devotion to craft with a rival impulse to cast aside orthodoxy.
"Sam is thoughtful, rebellious but disciplined, so that he can leverage a huge natural gift to serve something as fleeting as a mood, idea or feeling and do so with an unerring feel — what some would call soul," Poneman said.
Beam left Sub Pop to record at a couple of larger labels but returned for "Beast Epic." Poneman said Sub Pop isn't big on prodigal son stories, but Beam "is so beloved and respected in our organization that doing anything other than proceeding would have felt wrong."
Like many artists, Beam likes something to tie an album together; his 2007 album, "The Shepherd's Dog," had a dog in every song. This time the characters in his songs all had some degree of frailty.
Now 43, this father of five daughters is less interested in the problems of youth than in people who persevere after being knocked around by life.
The cover of "Beast Epic" is a caricature of Beam — you can tell it's him by the guitar and big, bushy beard — with a blindfold.
"All these things keep hitting us over the head, no matter how old you are," he said. "You say one day I'll be all grown up and I'll figure it all out, but you don't. You just keep on learning the lessons over and over again. And that's what these songs are all about."