The Meaning Behind Iron and Wine’s Struggle Over Political Confusion, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”

Flightless Bird, American Mouth” wasn’t necessarily thought to be the stand-out track on Sam Beam’s (aka Iron and Wine) third studio album when it was released in 2007. Against the odds, it has become by far his most popular song from that album, The Shepard’s Dog, mostly due to a prominent feature in the 2008 movie Twilight

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As the story goes, Kristen Stewart was listening to the song while the crew was preparing to film a dance scene. The soundtrack hadn’t been decided on yet but the actors needed background music to film the scene. Stewart suggested “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” and the song ended up fitting perfectly and was released as part of the official movie soundtrack. 

Dancing Through Confusion

Written in 6/8 time, the song is reminiscent of a waltz, and is arranged with mostly acoustic instruments. The acoustic guitar and piano give it an old-timey feel. There’s a yearning expressed through the music that supports the lyrics.

Beam opens the song with a verse about childhood memories (I was a quick, wet boy / Diving too deep for coins). “The imagery is innocent,” Sam Beam explained in an interview on the Song Exploder podcast, “and then it gets more complex and more frustrated as the thing goes on.” 

Now I’m a fat house cat
Cursing my sore blunt tongue
Watching the warm poison rats
Curl through the wide fence cracks
Pissing on magazine photos
Those fishing lures thrown in the cold and clean
Blood of Christ mountain stream

The film professor-turned-folk singer Beam wrote “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” at a time when he was processing a lot of changes. America had seen 9/11, George W. Bush had been reelected, and on a personal level, Beam had moved from Florida to Texas with his wife and children. 

The family now lived outside of Austin, and Beam was eager to record from home. The songs on his first two records, The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002) and Our Endless Numbered Days (2004), had sparse arrangements featuring vocals and guitar. Beam wanted the third album to be different. He built a studio at home and collaborated with other musicians to create fuller arrangements. 

[RELATED: Andrew Bird and Iron & Wine Play for National Parks]

Taking the Political Personal 

The lyrical content was inspired by how Beam was feeling at the time about his home country. In an interview with The Independent while he was still making the album, the musician said: “It’s not a political propaganda record, but it’s definitely inspired by political confusion.”

“Flightless Bird, American Mouth” is a collection of disjointed images. There’s a mouth that is supposed to take a “looming” big pill that later gets “stuck going down.” The chorus keeps coming back to the search for a bird that can’t fly. A lot of the objects mentioned are not quite right, either: a fence with cracks, a dog-eared map, a sore blunt tongue. 

The thoughts never resolve into a story. The track is more of an emotional snapshot where the presence of beauty collides with the eerie feeling that something is going terribly wrong. It’s the way Beam saw his home country when he wrote the song.

“I love America,” Beam said on Song Exploder. “It’s fine to, like, love America and criticize it at the same time. We usually criticize the things we love the most.”

Photo by Rebecca Sapp/WireImage for The Recording Academy

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