Review Summary: Iron & Wine graduates to a new school of excellence. Sam Beam, flip your tassel. Here’s your diploma.
Sam Beam has traveled far to arrive here. Born from humble lo-fi beginnings, The bearded face of Iron & Wine has never sounded so good. Mr. Beam has sweetly crooned many stories throughout his artistic career, yet none evoke a sense of wonder as prominently as the material on “Kiss Each Other Clean.”
The opening track, “Walking Far From Home,” is the musical thesis of the entire record. Against a backdrop of swirling distortion and distant howls, Beam’s voice cautiously pierces through the noise and paints a beautiful scene, albeit one covered in the gauzy glow of subtle surrealism. The song exudes a comfortable blend of varied instrumentation, experimentation with just the right amount of ambition, and the self-awareness of an artist who has truly found his sound.
The same applies to the entire album. On earlier albums, Beam whispered. On “Kiss Each Other Clean,” he preaches. A feeling of assurance is found within his voice, one that is not overly brash, yet manages to speak deftly to the listener. His wandering narrative style is still intact and as sharp as ever. Oddly enchanting scenes and references to nature and religion abound, but are never intrusive. Lyrically and vocally, this is Sam Beam at his prime.
As for the actual music that underlies Beam's trademark narration, one might say, “experimental,” another may say, “evolution.” Iron & Wine has grown from crafting tender, static-laced folk songs to orchestrating fully fleshed out jam sessions. That may be off-putting to fans of songs such as “Naked As We Came” or “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” yet the growth was expected.
On “The Shepherd’s Dog,” there are clues that lead to a sound that can only be attained by a full band. “Kiss Each Other Clean” makes it even more apparent. Some songs would simply not work with a single man and a guitar, and that is what makes it beautiful. Amidst the elegant finger-picking, one can hear an ebbing sea of choral voices, the delicate thumps of folk percussion, stinging wisps of overdrive and groovy brass. Production is equally as excellent. There is a hint of restraint, as not to make the album sound exceedingly polished, yet allows every facet of the album to shine though. Compared to the acoustic sound of his first albums, this is an evolution, predictable, yet unexpectedly so.
This is the perfect sunset album. From the oh-so slight pensiveness of the lyrics and ethereal vocals to the earthy instrumentation, it lends itself to repeated listens. As the lyrics enchant and the instruments excite, the album triumphs. And Iron & Wine graduates to a new school of excellence. Sam Beam, flip your tassel. Here’s your diploma.