The Sam Beam that we hear on Iron & Wine’s fourth album is a figure quite distinct from the one that first greeted us on his 2002 debut.
Said record, The Creek Drank the Cradle, cast Beam as a rustic, backwoods sort, a Will Oldham-type figure with wild beard and collection of banjo-plucking songs that sounded like they might have been maturing in oak casks in the Appalachians for the last century or two. But much like Oldham, Beam has obviously become uncomfortable in his niche, and so subsequent albums have toned down the folky lo-fi in favour of a more open-ended, curious approach.
2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog toyed with African pop music and dub production: still spooky, but occasionally danceable. And Kiss Each Other Clean goes further still. Sumptuously recorded, with help from Chicago producer Brian Deck, and featuring a cast of musicians drawing from bands like Califone, Chicago Underground Duo and Antibalas, it’s a fuller, friskier record than anything Beam has captured before, filled out with warm Californian harmonies and boasting a certain funk in its step.
Yes, if you can believe it, Kiss Each Other Clean gets kind of funky. There’s a little in Me and Lazarus, a slow strut with velvety vocals, a wriggling bass line and a saxophone that sounds sheepish, at first, but slowly gains confidence as the song unfurls. Bird Burned Hand, on the other hand, is quite the jam, all ebullient brass and acid jazz keyboard squelches.
Still, cut away the instrumentation and there is a storytelling core to Iron & Wine that remains largely consistent. The opening Walking Far From Home roams far and wide, a panoramic journey that could almost have fit onto Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, Beam singing of “a car crash in the country / Where the prayers run like weeds along the road”. Tree by the River, meanwhile, appears to be a nostalgic tale of lost love that looks back without anger. Beam’s songwriting retains a cryptic quality, but the feeling shines through, and however far Iron & Wine travels from its starting point, it still won’t feel far from home.
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