In Brief: Easily Iron & Wine’s second best after The Shepherd’s Dog. This album’s been bringin’ me joy.
It can be frustrating when an artist’s supposed “fans” refuse to let that artist grow and change. You’d think that, more than half a decade after the sonic surprises that threw listeners for a loop on the Woman King EP and The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron & Wine would have finally shaken loose all the purists who acted like the only way Sam Beam could make good music was to lock himself in his basement with some crappy lo-fi equipment. I’m not knocking The Creek Drank the Cradle. It’s a good folk album, a strong example of what one man with a highly creative mind can do with limited resources. But that’s far from the only mode in which Beam communicates well. Imposing those same limits now would just be pretentious. More recent records have shown that he has a penchant for layering sounds, whether it be the strong backing bands he’s assembled for those records and their subsequent tours, the soothing multi-tracked vocal harmonies Beam and his sister provide that deliberately contrast with his husky, nearly-whispered lead vocals on several songs, or the more synthesized, exploratory elements that came out frequently on 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean, a record that seemed designed to shake off “folk” as a genre tag once and for all. The experiments don’t always work, but for me, they provide a lot more dynamic range and just plain old fun surprises than a hushed, lo-fi folk album ever could. Generally, the kaleidoscope of sounds enhances the songwriting, rather than distracting from it. Yet critics and old-school fans of I&W still pine for the simple sounds of Cradle, treating Beam as if he were simply suffering from a lengthy bout with ADD, waiting for him to someday snap out of it and go back to his “roots” or whatever. It drives me nuts. I personally loved The Shepherd’s Dog – it was one of my top ten albums of the 2000s, in fact – but I don’t plan on whining for the rest of Beam’s career about how he’s not making albums that sound like that one. Whatever he chooses to do genre-wise, the songwriting and musicianship need to be evaluated on their own terms.
Those “terms” are admittedly a bit tricky when it comes to I&W’s newest album, Ghost on Ghost. Here, Beam’s intent was to make more of a jazz record. My knowledge of jazz is admittedly rather limited, so whether he got this “right” according to the standards of jazz aficionados, I couldn’t tell you. But it’s one of those genres that seems to hybridize well with others, and the jazz/folk blend that Beam and his band came up with here may well have led to I&W’s most focused record. The inspiration wasn’t so much “Hey, I want to put on this genre hat now”, as it was a recognition that there was a lot of tension built up over Beam’s last few albums. The Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean could be quite brilliant at times, but you could feel the heaviness in the mood of both records, the underlying angst. Here, beam frees himself up from that tension and creates a much more relaxed record – not necessarily in terms of tempo, since many of these tracks are refreshingly upbeat – but definitely in terms of not overthinking things in the studio. Producer Brian Deck still applies unusual overlays of sound where appropriate, but the core of this record is a band, gathered together in the studio, all playing in a single room, letting the vibe go where it naturally goes, rather than hearing a recording played back and responding to it after the fact. That makes it much more fluid from track to track than most of Iron & Wine’s stuff. Upright bass, percussion and piano dominate several of these tracks, much more so than the expected acoustic guitar, and there are a couple points where the band unexpectedly launches into a fast-paced breakdown, just to keep you on your toes. Horn sections crop up in several places, while gentle strings and more streamlined, AM radio sorts of sounds conspire to disarm the listener’s defenses on either. To my ears, something beautiful seems to be happening at every turn. I can imagine some folks criticizing it for not being as “gritty” as some of I&W’s past work, but I’ve never been one to knock an artist for maintaining more of a peaceful mood, if they can do so creatively.
It’s also worth noting that Beam’s songwriting tactics haven’t changed too much. Troubled relationships, dark hidden motives, and regrettable mistakes that haunt the characters who make them still crop up frequently in these songs. As breezy and nostalgic as it may sometimes sound, Ghost on Ghost isn’t an album about pretty people doing harmless lovey-dovey things. (Not usually, anyway.) It’s the deliberate contrast between music and lyrics that has always fascinated me on Iron & Wine albums, even as far back as those minimalistic early days. There’s an intrigue as I listen to his words, a desire to understand what sort of messed-up story is being retold in the abstract, that keeps me coming back to this album. It wouldn’t be the same if the lyrics matched the mood of the music every time – it’d still be a solid record musically, but it would feel like the songwriter was just punting because he knew he could leave it up to the band to hit my personal sweet spots. Beam uses those musical sweet spots to lure me in, to evoke fond remembrance of times that seemed simpler, but in fact, weren’t. Ghost on Ghost feels like a record about how a realist remembers his youth. There are mental snapshots of those languid spring evenings that seemed at the time like they might just linger on forever. But then you remember the context – the trainwreck of a co-ed you were dating at the time who went ballistic on you the next morning, or the college courses you were failing because you were too busy being all bohemian and lazily staring at those sunsets, or the strife going on back in your hometown that you had to grit your teeth and face when the semester ended. Beam and his pals unapologetically take you on a walk down memory Lane… and then remind you why it’s not a good idea to take up permanent residence there.
1. Caught in the Briars
From the fast-paced clattering of drums that opens this track, you know to expect something different. But you still don’t know to expect it suddenly drop into a sweet slide guitar riff and a relaxed, mid-tempo pace. Horns, percussion, bells, and the absolutely thrilling sound of the upright bass soon join in, almost threatening to drown out the acoustic riff that the song is built on, but at the same time, it sounds like the song could work equally well played solo with only that guitar. Beam’s vocal melody closely follows that of the riff, occasionally skewing it slightly with jazzy chords. Here, he’s singing about a young girl who all of the boys seem to fall for, and judging by the chorus, she’s had quite a few of them doing the morning walk of shame: “Where all of the naked boys who lay down beside her/Sing her the saddest song, all caught in the briars.” After two verses and two choruses, we haven’t much time left to ponder what this means before the tempo once again shifts to chaotic, and we get a messy, jazzy breakdown that closes the song, giving it a nice sense of symmetry due to how it started.
2. The Desert Babbler
If you loved the laid back, soft rock vibe of “Tree by the River” from the last album, but found yourself wishing it weren’t so synthesized, then this sunny little song might just be the ticket. Right from the beginning, it’s absolutely dripping with melody, by way of Beam’s falsetto and the smooth backing vocals behind him. The starry-eyed string arrangement and the overall nostalgic feel of the song are a stone’s throw away from something My Morning Jacket might have attempted on their more recent albums, but the upright bass and horn section are what help to set it apart. Just when you’ve settled in and you feel like this song’s beckoning you out on a road trip through the desert to destinations unknown, you catch wind of the lyrics, in which a character coming and going from his hometown of Barstow, California seems to express a dissatisfaction with being there, and also a sense of incompleteness due to his compulsion to be anywhere else. Not many feel-good AM radio songs from the 70s would start off with a line as bleak “It’s New Year’s Eve, and California’s gonna kill you soon”, and from there on out, Beam walks a fine line between wistful and woeful.
Iron & Wine doesn’t have that many straight-up love songs. There’s usually something subversive going on in at least a few lines of each song that you wouldn’t want to sing to someone you feel romantically attracted to. But this one is unabashed in its declaration that “You’ve been bringin’ me joy”, and it does so by way of a delicately structured piano ballad, definitely one of the more stripped-down songs on the album, with very light drums and other instruments such as the guitar there mostly for texture. Vocals are the standout instrument here, once again bringing out the best of Beam’s falsetto, as well as the kinder side of his lead vocals that for once doesn’t make you feel unsettled in any way. There’s a humility to this song that does allows some of I&W’s usual cynicism to creep back in, by way of admissions such as “Born bitter as a lemon.” To me, that’s what makes the song special beyond the gorgeously gentle melody, beyond the kaleidoscopic echo effects, beyond the smoooooth-with-five-O’s vocal performance. It’s despite all of this man’s crooked and pessimistic tendencies that his lover has been able to break through and force him to admit that some things in life are just downright beautiful and joyful. That’s the sort of thing that turns love songs from superficial fluff to powerful poetry. Listening to this one, I just want to take a long walk, hand-in-hand with my wife, down some lushly colored autumn pathway deep in the woods of New England.
4. Low Light Buddy of Mine
Really solid rhythm section on this one. The drums and bass get to lead the way, with brief melodic sketches from the piano, and the result is a minimalistic but inviting groove that gradually gets every instrument but the kitchen sink spread on top of it. Yeah, this is one of those songs where Beam and Deck and their cohorts go a little crazy, throwing in everything from the expected strings and horns to funk-inspired keyboards and what I’m guessing might be a harpsichord, and God only knows what else. What’s remarkable about the multi-instrumental approach here is that it feels diverse without being overcrowded – the song still has a laid-back pace to it that somehow makes it that much more ominous. While it’s clear that the song is about two people who love each other, there’s the sense that they only arrived at the stable place they’re in now by way of some shady deals and compromises they aren’t proud of – things that haunt them in the background of their lives, threatening every now and then to come collecting and upset the delicate balance that they currently enjoy.
5. Grace For Saints and Ramblers
If you don’t count the brief upstart moments in “Caught in the Briars” and another track that we’ll discuss later, this is the most up-tempo track on the album. I appreciate it when Beam throws in a few faster-paced songs, because I feel like it shapes an album better and helps the slowest songs to “count” a little more. But this one’s not just here to pick up the pace. Despite an enticingly peppy rhythm and another solid bass line, it’s really the lyrics that make this one shine. And boy, are there a lot of them! We know from songs like “Walking Far From Home” and “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me” that Beam can compile a list of bizarre analogies in such a way that they build up tension and momentum and general bewilderment as a song reaches its climax. Even this one’s a lot more clap-happy and cheery-sounding in general than anything on Kiss Each Other Clean, there’s a lot more going on beneath its simple chorus of “It all came down to you and I.” I honestly don’t know how he keeps all of the tongue-twisters straight, nor could I hazard a guess at what most of the shady characters mentioned are all about. But just reading these words is fun, for the alliteration and the sheer cadence of it: “There were sleepless dreamers, doomsday preachers/The message and the messenger, the gun beneath the register/The sweet gum tree by the tough drunk tank/We could never give enough to the bad blood bank/There were hopeless sinners, sweepstake winners/They danced with the farmer’s daughter, capered with the corporate lawyers.” It’s like Dr. Seuss, at least if he were in need of a little Prozac.
6. Grass Widows
Another short, slow-jazzy kind of ballad crops up here, though this one’s a lot moodier than “joy”. This one’s all about how “we finally saw the colors of the world”, and there’s a general tone of disillusionment in its weary, minor-key melody. Sevreal colors are named as abstract metaphors for disappointing and disillusioning events, and it’s all a bit depressing yet beautiful in its own weird way. At just under three minutes, there isn’t too much time for the mood to linger. Horns bleed red and gold into the bleak night sky, and there’s a cool-hued keyboard solo at one point, but this one’s definitely more about sketching a mood than it is about showing off.
7. Singers and the Endless Song
Since this one also starts off with a drum and bass groove, I tend to get it confused with “Low Light Buddy of Mine” at times, though to be fair, the bass has a bit more of an expressive melody to it, and this one lays on the vocals a lot thicker. Horns show up to add what I can only describe as “blunt punctuation” to the verses before doing the more typical soulful thing in the chorus, and in general it seems like a lot of the instruments have an extra dose of sass here. The group of musicians Beam assembled is definitely having fun bringing this one slowly to a rolling boil. Once again, the vocals are one of the most notable elements, as Beam uses the female background singers (possibly sneaking his own voice in there, androgynous as it can sometimes be when he sings in his higher range) for a sort of call-and-response toward the end. Once again, this brings out the playfulness in Beam’s otherwise sinister lyrics as he explains what the “endless song” is about and why there’s never enough music to accompany it: “‘About the tangled up truth in the perfect teeth/About the pilgrim and the picking through the chaff and whea/About the butterfly kiss and the call for blood/About the pig and the preacher and the holy mud.” Once again, hell if I know what it all means, but like most of his lyrics, the righteous light is inextricable from the seedy darkness and vice versa.
8. Sundown (Back in the Briars)
It should be more or less apparent from the title, but this one’s basically a reprise of “Caught in the Briars”. It borrows the same basic melody, stretching it a bit to fit the softer arrangement provided by an almost Bobby McFerrin-like vocal arrangement in its first half, and the dreamy vibraphone and strings that its second half gradually fades out on. Despite its short length of just over two minutes, you once again can’t tell where it’s going to end up from where it starts. Nor will you expect it contain some of the darkest lyrics on the album, as we discover some clues about what might have happened to the girl from South Carolina who might have entertained one too many naked boys: “There go the cops with the tomcat teeth/Here come the church mice trying too hard/She had a way to be kind with words/I had a knife in the back of my car.” Shiiiiiiiiiiiiver…
9. Winter Prayers
Old-school Iron & Wine fans, you’re being thrown a bone here. Please enjoy it. There’s a vaguely disquieting hush to this track as solemn piano and muted guitar strumming get it off to a very slow start – it’s not in a hurry to go anywhere, instead pondering the stillness of an imposing winter landscape, with its trees reduced to mere mazes of sticks and its night and day blurred together in an endless, murky gray. There are some layers here, most notably the backing vocals, so it isn’t a true throwback to the old days, but I’m guessing most of the folks who miss those days will take what they can get. I appreciate this sort of thing more when the mood is deliberately chosen to fit this song, which it definitely was here. But I’ll be honest, I’m glad it’s no longer Beam’s default mode for an entire album’s worth of songs, because the songs around this one need to not sound like it in order to make it come across as more distinctive and haunting.
10. New Mexico’s No Breeze
This one gets us going with the smooth, soft rock stuff again, as if the band hadn’t missed a beat after polishing off “The Desert Babbler”. I might like this one even more, because oh my goodness gosh golly does that melody stick in my head! And not in a superficially catchy way – it’s more that it floats on the warm desert breeze so flawlessly that every rise and fall in its sequence of notes seems to have been carved out by Mother Nature herself. Yeah, I know, I’m getting pretentious in how I’m describing this one. It may strike others as total fluff, for all I know. The “fluttery” strings will certainly be too much for some, as will the loungey keyboards and the “dinner music” piano solo that shows up in the middle of it. Beam told us his last album would be a bunch of “yacht rock” songs, but this one might have captured that atmosphere better than anything on that album. It’s how the interplay between the musicians adds character to the song that makes it stand out to me – this is where I get the strongest feeling of nostalgia for an age that the singer is clearly aware can never and should never return. Given that it’s the third song on the album to mention “naked boys”, I can only assume that it’s about the same girl as the two “Briars” songs, which is somewhat comforting because hey, at least she survived. What she’s doing drifting through Santa Fe is anyone’s guess. I love how Beam uses her young age as an adjective: “You were too nineteen to be blowing away.” There’s a definite connection between youth and the inability to stay ion one place for very long on this album, which I guess explains why each song seems to take place in a different state.
11. Lovers’ Revolution
This is definitely the biggest left turn on the album. I can tell that Beam really pushed himself to have an out-of-genre experience on this one, because it’s got the kind of repeating melody that I can imagine working its sinister magic if he were just picking away at his acoustic guitar, and that would be satisfying enough by Iron & Wine’s usual standards. But instead, it’s the song on the album that takes Beam’s fascination with jazz and runs the farthest with it, letting the horn section lead the way while the bass and drums set the kind of smoky scene we’d expect from some sort of secret agent film set over half a century ago. What really gets me is how it starts off all slow and ominous, then gradually gains speed as Beam’s lyrics become more and more of a surreal head trip, culminating in a frenetic, improvisational, “bebop” sort of breakdown that just has to be heard to be believed. It may be nothing by the standards of jazz greats, I suppose, but the build-up and release of tension is just amazing here, and once again there’s a beautiful symmetry to it, as the song’s primary refrain breaks back in, like nothing unusual had happened at all, and the song inexorably slows down again, until it sputters out, weary from its own lonely observations. There’s a sense of fluidity to this one that for some reason makes me think of Joe Henry – another artist who knows a thing or two about existing somewhere in the less-explored crawlspace between folk and jazz. (Henry would have probably played this one more slowly and forebodingly throughout, I guess. And murkier on the production values, too. OK, maybe that’s a terrible comparison, but that’s where my mind went.)
12. Baby Center Stage
As Iron & Wine album finales go, this is probably the most peaceful ending we’ve gotten since “Passing Afternoon”. Sure, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” may be everyone’s favorite who isn’t ashamed of the whole Twilight thing, but there was a sense of loss and sadness to that one. And “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me” was anything but mellow. Here, the kicked-back piano and lap steel aim for something more reserved, more graceful. It’s almost a country song, except that you’ve got horns and other weird things uncommon to the genre. So you won’t be crying in your beer, but you might just be telling your bartender a sad, rambling story about an actress you had a massive crush on whose joy was slowly and tragically stamped out by everyone’s expectations of her. The song is at once sympathetic (“Doesn’t anybody see how scared you are?”) and kind of creepy, maybe even stalker-ish in its devotion (“We closed our eyes, killed each other, and came to life” – sounds to me like someone’s daydreaming about a suicide pact!”) So don’t take “peaceful” to mean that there’s nothing going on beneath the surface here. Far from it. This one’s definitely on the longer end of the spectrum for Iron & Wine, running for nearly six minutes and falling a mere second shy of “Lovers’ Revolution” for the honor of being this album’s longest song. It’s mostly due to the extended outro, which has the piano, strings, some other orchestral elements, and Beam’s soothing voice all gradually fading into a golden sunset. It’s a reserved ending where you might have expected another curveball. Some days it gets a bit tedious for me, to be honest, but that’s a really minor complaint given the consistently positive reactions I’ve had to pretty much every sound on the album leading up to this point. If he wants to let that last memory linger, I really can’t blame him for it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Caught in the Briars $1.75
The Desert Babbler $1.75
Low Light Buddy of Mine $1.50
Grace For Saints and Ramblers $1.50
Grass Widows $1
Singers and the Endless Song $1.25
Sundown (Back in the Briars) $1
Winter Prayers $1
New Mexico’s No Breeze $2
Lovers’ Revolution $1.75
Baby Center Stage $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.