Cain and Abel via Iron and Wine’s “Innocent Bones”

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If you have ever looked at the story of Cain and Abel in scripture (Bible and/or Quran), a “What the hell?” might be the most appropriate response. Humanity can’t get out of the second generation before the first murder is on our hands. The story goes—Cain provides a token offering to God, Abel offers something a bit more robust. God finds favor in Abel’s gesture, not-so-much with Cain’s. Cain turns jealous and/or annoyed—invites Abel out for a little stroll. No more Abel. (Genesis 4)

“Innocent Bones” is an unavoidable track on Iron and Wine’s newly released Shepherd’s Dog and is framed around this infamous Cain and Abel story. Biblical references are nothing new to Iron and Wine front man Sam Beam. Having confessed his rearing in a Christian home, it is no surprise that subtle Christian-esque irritations and spiritual inquiries have crept their way into each album (“Jezebel”, Woman King and “Southern Anthem”, The Creek Drank the Cradle to name a couple). These inferences only make Beam’s agnostic claim all the more interesting. In a recent interview with Paste Magazine, Beam states:

“There’s always been kind of a subversive quality to the way I use religion. I mean, I try to use it both ways, you know, because that’s the way life is. There are some great things about religion but there’s some really f-ed-up stuff about it too.”

There is no doubt that Beam has an interest in that which is “transcendent”; however, it is coated with an intrigue of humanity’s involvement (or lack thereof). More specifically, Beam prefers to sit in the tension created in humanity’s pursuits of God, life, self, love—and the “more-ness” of each. Beam writes “There ain’t a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab, but they all want the scar / How every mouth sings of what it’s without so we all sing of love.” In other words, we want what we don’t have. And even then, we second guess these wants due to our hesitation in experiencing their fullness. What is love without the pain? Freedom without the choice? Offering without the risk?

Although many of Beam’s metaphors are cryptic, it does not deter from his ability to pose subtle questions such as these. In fact, “Innocent Bones” is a question in and of itself: whose innocent bones? What is the “garden wall”? What is God/Christ finding here? If you haven’t figured it out by now, we (those writing for this site) prefer the questions. With this in mind, I invite you to listen and ask yourself.



Innocent Bones (Lyrics)
Iron and Wine

Cain got a milk-eyed mule from the auction
Abel got a telephone
And even the last of the blue-eyed babies know
That the burning man is the color of the end of day
And how every tongue that gets bit always has another word to say

Cain bought a blade from some witch at the window
Abel bought a bag of weed
And even the last of the brown-eyed babies see
That the cartoon king has a tattoo of a bleeding heart
There ain’t a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab, but they all want the scar
How every mouth sings of what it’s without so we all sing of love
And how it ain’t one dog who’s good at fucking and denying who he’s thinking of

Cain heard a cat tumble limp off the rooftop
Abel heard his papa pray
And even the last of the black-eyed babies say
That every saint has a chair you can borrow and a church to sell
That the wind blows cold across the back of the master and the kitchen help
There’s a big pile of innocent bones still holding up the garden wall
And it was always the broken hand we learned to lean on after all
How God knows if Christ came back he would find us in a poker game
After finding out the drugs were all free but they won’t let you out the door again