In Brief: A fun ride if you enjoy Iron & Wine for the more experimental fare. But those who feel that The Shepherd’s Dog was too cluttered will hate this.
There are some artists for whom you can never trust their own descriptions of their records. Usually those artists fall into the category of one-hit-album wonders who struck gold with a disc that caught everyone’s attention, but who struggled to deliver a worthwhile follow-up, and have been promising with each attempt since then that the next album is a “return to roots”. But every now and then you have your oddities like Iron & Wine, whose music sneaks its way into soundtracks and indie music publications’ “best of” lists, never becoming a bona fide hit, but generating enough buzz to place a lot of expectations on the follow-up. And in I&W’s case, it’s become harder and harder to determine what he might do with each follow-up record. The progression seemed simple at first – 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle was a modest, no-budget collection of whispered folk songs laid down in one man’s basement, and then 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days provided a similarly quiet and hypnotic approach with bigger production values. The EPs that followed in between Days and the long-awaited follow-up, 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, were our first clue that Sam Beam had set his sights on a different plane of existence. The songs were still lush, acoustic descriptions of Americana at their core, but Beam’s artistic restlessness found a number of layers and filters added to many of them, transforming each song’s textures to mostly thrilling results. It was a somewhat divisive record – my personal pick for the best of 2007, but a bit of a betrayal for those who had grown attached to Beam’s style precisely because of its sparse simplicity. Personally, I don’t think the use of electric equipment and assorted studio trickery necessarily betrays an artist whose music was previously classified as “folk” – it depends on the songs at their core, and to my ears, Beam was still writing incredibly intriguing ones. Still, I had no idea where to expect him to go next. And where he told us he was going doesn’t seem to be exactly where he ended up.
Somewhere between The Shepherd’s Dog and the maddenly long wait for this new record, entitled Kiss Each Other Clean, Sam Beam became enamored with the music of the 70s. Soft rock, warm chord progressions, an overall sunny vibe… and the occasional horn section. So he told us he was working on a “focused pop record” that incorporated these nostalgic sounds. To many, this sounded like the most uncool thing Beam could have attempted (see the similar backlash against My Morning Jacket‘s last album, which had 70s written all over it), and this led to disparaging predictions of a “yacht rock” album that would sound as corporate and ultimately forgettable as that lost era of music in between the rebellious rock of the 60s and the era of disco in the late 70s… which I’m not sure if we’ve really come around to liking again, or whether we just enjoy music that echoes it to be ironic. Sure, I can hear some of those “commercialized hippie” sounds leaking through, but let’s give Beam some credit – he might have trimmed down some of his more rambling tendencies and glossed up the production a bit, but there’s also a disorienting haze to some of this record, a purposeful mish-mash of sounds that you wouldn’t expect to fit together, and a decidedly indie approach to the musical experimentation. Kiss Each Other Clean is what you might get when you mix dreamy nostalgia with an unsettling narrative. The higher Beam goes in his little glass elevator, grabbing inspiration from whatever comes into his expanded view, the more he gleefully starts to press the buttons and head in the direction of “up and out”. For me, it’s fun because it’s unpredictable.
So what’s the downside? Why am I not lavishing five-star praise on this new record like I did on The Sheperd’s Dog? Two reasons, really. One is that “more focused” amounts to a shorter record – which is not always a bad thing if it means an artist is trimming out the fat, but since he came up with 12 quality songs last time around (and a handful more that didn’t even make the cut, instead appearing on the collection Around the Well), a mere 10 songs this time around can feel like he’s selling us short. The genre roulette keeps it interesting throughout – even throwing in a few backward glances at the more straightforward Iron & Wine of yesterday – but I don’t get thoroughly absorbed in this record the way I did in that last one. Also, while Beam hasn’t been shy about pulling the sneak attack of dropping a few harsh words into an otherwise mellow song in the past, he does it enough here to the point where it’s a bit jarring. Past records felt like the voice of a man on the fringes of society, whispering interesting secrets into my ear. Now his overall tone has gotten subversive enough that it sometimes reminds me of a homeless guy I used to pass on the way to work during my college days, who seemed friendly enough as he offered to wash people’s windows when they pulled up in the parking lot where he had taken up residence, but he’d whisper some rather disturbing crap to unsuspecting pedestrians. The effect can be a bit alienating, and it keeps me at a distance from a few songs, despite none of them being of inherently bad quality. For the most part, the new musical tricks employed here make up for the increasingly sour turn that Beam’s lyrics have taken, so this is still a very good record that will probably stand a good chance at making my year-end list. But there are definitely still a few growing pains apparent, so be warned that Kiss Each Other Clean is a bit of a grab bag.
1. Walking Far From Home
We’re immediately dropped into an organ-induced haze as Beam chooses a psychedlic and decidedly non-folksy means of getting his new album underway. As this track slowly unfolds with its repeating melody depicting odd, dreamlike scenes seen on a walk through a strange neighborhood, there are glistening keyboards, layered background vocals, and trippy synthesized sounds all chiming in above an otherwise minimalistic song, which has no chorus to speak off – just this strange story that meanders from verse to verse. I can’t even really pin this one down genre-wise – it sticks out as its own bizarre concoction, gentle and yet alienating all at once. It’ll be enough to scare off anyone who thought The Shepherd’s Dog threw in too many extra sounds just for the sake of it. I’ve grown to like it because of that, actually. The lyrics are a bit of a puzzle, which is nothing new given Beam’s style of finding sacred things wallowing in the muck, but I have to say there’s an unintentionally funny moment when he sings the line “Saw a prisoner take a pistol”, which would probably get more of a giggle out of me if he hadn’t subverted it by mentioning “a millionare p*ssing on the lawn” in the line immediately preceding it. Those kinds of analogies are Iron & Wine’s bread and butter these days, so if that sort of lyrical style that looks for poetic meaning in the cess pools of life doesn’t do it for you… well, you’ve been warned.
2. Me and Lazarus
A slow rhythm of drum and bass and some low-end synths gently push this song forward – it’s got an ominous creep to it that seems like a logical enough progression from some of the darker tracks in I&W’s back catalogue, but even with all that in mind, I still wasn’t prepared for a saxophone solo to bust out in the middle of it. So what is this… folk-funk? Once again, genre labels are failing me, but I like the unexpected sounds seeping out of the speakers. The song basically documents a man’s imaginary exploits with Lazarus, who is presumably the same character from the Bible whom Jesus brought back to life. It seems like the song started with the question of “What’s a dead man to do with a second chance at life?”, but it kind of spiraled out into more abstract considerations from there. Interpreting I&W has never been my strong point, but this is a curious musical concoction nonetheless.
3. Tree by the River
Despite the heavily synthesized tone of this song, it’s the first moment on the record where I’m reminded of the comparatively more sweet and innocent mood of a lot of Beam’s older stuff. If his intent was to make “a focused pop record”, then I’d say this is the first track that really fits this description. Its melody and backing vocals are as sunny as a vintage Beach Boys tune, and the lyrics wax nostalgic about a secret place shared with a lover from one’s teenage years. There’s even a relatively straightforward guitar solo – electric, in case you were wondering. In the background, you can hear the more organic elements – the drums and the strum of an acoustic guitar. And in some parallel universe, this would be an easygoing folk tune in the vein of classic Iron & Wine – it could perhaps get performed that way live, since Beam’s been known to alter the arrangements quite radically from the album versions. But regardless of the instrumental backing, it’s just a sweet song at its core, with the description of this long lost lover as a “potty-mouthed girl” being the only element that temporarily jars me out of the lovey-dovey mood. (Come to think of it, a girl who looks all sweet and innocent on the outside but has the mouth of a sailor sounds quite like the kind of person Sam Beam would really like.)
4. Monkeys Uptown
One of the more intriguing tracks on The Shepherd’s Dog was “House by the Sea”, due to its exploration of a more African-inspired tribal drum sound, as filtered through I&W’s indie folk style. I can hear a little bit of that, though more subtle in subversive, in the metallic clang of this track’s percussion that conspires with the vintage synths and programmed beats to create a trance-like effect. It’s another minimal creation that has a base melody meandering up and down, but that is overall based more on rhythm than it is on melody. As is the norm for this album, that basic pallette is painted all over with layered vocals and a bit of dirty electric guitar. Throw in some incredibly cynical lyrics that are basically about sticking it to the system, and you get a mood that feels a lot more like Radiohead than Iron & Wine. It’s probably Beam’s harshest bit of songwriting to date, since the refrain contains one hell of a stinger: “It’s looking like you better do what they say/Those monkeys uptown told you not to f*ck around.” Somewhere on YouTube, I betcha there’s a potty-mouthed indie rock kid dying to find out what happens when that refrain collides with Sufjan Stevens‘ “I Want to Be Well”.
5. Half Moon
What’s this now – a country song? A genre that I can actually identify? It’s amusing that this is now the exception rather than the rule. Loping rhythm guitar and some beautiful slide guitar work conspire with female backing vocals to make a track that, aside from the keyboards and some of the other extra colors, could have fit in quite well on Our Endless Numbered Days alongside such simple gems as “Sunset Soon Forgotten” and “Love and Some Verses”. Beam’s falsetto is used to great effect here, and even though this feels like a safe bid to soothe the pain of old-school I&W fans who are feeling really betrayed at this point, I’m never going to begrudge the guy for writing a pretty song.
6. Rabbit Will Run
Back to the land of the weird! The foreground is made up of a tribal-sounding loop – some sort of metallic chime instrument that I can’t quite identify – and buzzing guitars and other menacing sounds lurk in the background. The rhythm of 6/8 establishes one of I&W’s most encompassing soundscapes yet, enhanced by a serene flute and some surprisingly whimsical slide whistles that show up in the breaks where the other instruments drop out for a bit. It’s a longer song than Beam’s usual, at five and a half minutes, but he’s got a lot of lyrical ground to cover, sharing some sort of fable with us that deals with the cowardice of man, describing it in terms of different animals and their response to fear. It’s a breathtaking and yet creepy mixture, coming across as the album’s most lyrically profound track until a solemn break in the middle puts unwanted emphasis on this unsavory line: “A rabbit will run, but a pig has to lay in its p*ss.” I know, I probably shouldn’t just quote the lines that have the dirty words in them, but I’m seriously wondering what the deal is with this guy’s fascination regarding urine these days. It’s a momentary setback, because then an intriguing coda of organ and flute rises up and gradually fades out.
7. Godless Brother in Love
This would be the other track that I’d classify as something a little closer to vintage Iron & Wine. It’s a piano ballad, which there aren’t a ton of in Beam’s back catalogue, but the acoustic guitar and what I think might be a harp add a subtle, lush texture to it. The melody has that same feeling of “devastatingly sad yet beautiful” to it as the previous album’s “Resurrection Fern” did, as Beam seems to be singing about a man who is hopelessly over the moon for a woman who is only going to ruin him. Either that, or the establishment who has labeled him as “godless” is out to wreck the relationship. I’m never quite sure. But the song carries with it a sense of elation that’s too good to last. There could be no words whatsoever and I’d still be captivated by it. The man’s got a gift for melody, and those layered backing vocals sure aren’t hurting anything.
8. Big Burned Hand
Man, it sure is jarring to dive from such a placid, emotional song back into a mood that’s undeniably down and dirty. Beam’s making another attempt at folk/funk here, with the sax a little more grimy and insistent this time around, and the bass and keyboards set firmly on “70’s mode”. Another critic humorously described this as Iron & Wine attempting to play the Sanford & Son theme song, and yeah, it totally sounds like it could have been a TV theme from a few years before I was born. The man seems doggone determined to make sure we don’t always think of lush pastures and grizzly bearded men smoking meat in their backwoods cabins when we listen to one of his songs, and… mission accomplished? Beam’s obsession with dragging the scared through the mud is intact here, describing a war between the goddess of love and the god of war, and using the familiar icons “the lion and the lamb” to describe their progress… first they’re “fighting for the shade tree”, then “shooting at a tin can”, and finally “f*cking in the back row”. And that last line is just… ewwwww. I know the classic metaphor tells us the lion will lay down with the lamb, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be taken that way!
9. Glad Man Singing
Hand percussion and a simple acoustic strum make this the last of the small handful of more straightforward tracks on the album. Strangely, there’s this occasional note sequence from what I think is a vibraphone that takes me back to The Shepherd’s Dog track “Carousel”. I don’t think this tune quite reaches the same tragically lovely heights as “Carousel”, but this one’s still a nice breather between two of the album’s strangest tracks. Piano, synths, and other background noise begin to worm their way in as this track gently feels its way toward the end of the album, Beam’s lyrics making little sense to me but hitting my melodic soft spot every time he and his army of replicant background vocalists chime in with “And the mouth of the river is wide, WIIIIIIIIIIIIDE!”
10. Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me
What’s this – a seven minute rocker to close out the album? Has Iron & Wine gone all prog rock on us? Not quite. Beam’s written longer tracks in the past, most notably the stark monolith “The Trapeze Swinger”, but here he evokes a completely different mood, getting another 6/8 rhythm whipped up into a frenzy with a swirling electric guitar, kind of like the revenge of “Evening on the Ground” from the Woman King EP, except with New Orleans-style horns and… DJ scratches? Oh my Lord, you can’t be serious! But he is. And as bizarre as it is, this inappropriate mix of sounds actually works, thanks in no small part to his motor-mouth lyrics and the captivating chorus that sticks out as a definite “must sing along!” moment for this listener. There’s a playfulness and also a grittiness to this track, as beam watches “the happy kids kiss each other clean” and seems to ponder a new start, a new identity. (I think you found it, dude.) Midway through, the rhythm settles into a mid-tempo 4/4 groove, as Beam extends the chorus into a rather long coda about becoming all sorts of new things that rhyme with each other. What I like about it is that a lot of songwriters would settle for a profound-sounding line or two to repeat as the final climax gradually builds itself up, but Beam keeps supplying new words at every line, which must have made memorizing this song for live sets a difficult task. It almost takes on a free-form jam sort of feel, as the grumbling electric guitar, the horns and the drums get more disorganized with each stanza, eventually coming together almost half-heartedly as the song comes to a close. You can tell that everyone involved would have kept on improvising for another twenty minutes or so if someone hadn’t been there to reign them in. (Which could make live performances interesting.) For my money, this is the most brilliant track on the album, and I dare say it’s I&W’s most engaging album closer by a long shot. (With all due respect to “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”, which is lovely, but a bit overexposed in comparison to more worthy tracks from The Shepherd’s Dog. Sorry, Twilight fans.)
I’d probably have to dig up many different examples of the music that was popular in the years preceding my birth to tell you how closely Iron & Wine managed to mimic the pop sounds of the 70’s that he was apparently aiming for. That said, even if this seems like a bad stylistic move, there’s no denying the gleeful restlessness with which Beam takes on each jarring genre shift. I think it’s a lot of fun and that this album deserves more than to be written off as some sort of misaimed attempt at reviving “yacht rock” for yuppy indie kids. But then, I always seem to want to root for the guy who stubbornly tries to be himself even when conventional thinking tells him to tone down and go with the flow. To borrow on of his own analogies, I’d rather listen to this guy screw around for ten or twelve songs than do what the monkeys uptown tell him to. Not everything will work, but the ensuing adventurous journey will probably always be worthwhile.
That said, let’s hope he doesn’t attempt some weird hybrid of folk and crunk rock next time out.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Walking Far From Home $1.50
Me and Lazarus $1
Tree by the River $1.50
Monkeys Uptown $1
Half Moon $1
Rabbit Will Run $1.50
Godless Brother in Love $1.50
Big Burned Hand $1
Glad Man Singing $1.50
Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me $2
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.