Review Summary: Results may vary.
It didn’t take long for Samuel Beam’s real identity to be completely obliterated by the all-round pervasiveness of his chosen stage name, did it? Famously: Beam took the name “Iron & Wine” from a dietary supplement (“Beef Iron & Wine”) that he found in a general store while shooting a film, and decided that there was a lot more to it than meets the eye. As the South Carolina native explains it: “I recognized that a lot in my writing I'm trying to show both sides of the coin – the sour and sweet; Iron & Wine seemed to fit with that duality and I thought it would be more interesting to call the project that rather than use Sam Beam.”
And much like his real name, Beam’s original musical trappings are nearly gone too. While Iron & Wine’s first releases were hushed, acoustic recordings that would have been incredibly suited as the soundtrack to movies about falling pins and sleeping babies, Ghost on Ghost
– his first studio full length in over two years – continues the adult contemporary pop trajectory that was first exhibited on the wildly successful The Shepherd’s Dog
and later expanded upon by 2011’s quirky Kiss Each Other Clean
. But while there’s nothing patently wrong about returning to a successful formula for the third time running, viewing Ghost on Ghost
as the logical conclusion to Beam’s recent jazz and R&B endeavors is actually the kinder interpretation. To wit: that album cover of multiple picture frames (and very little actual picture) is quite indicative – a lot of Beam’s fifth studio release is just gilded decorations and meaningless gloss, with precious little in the way of novel content.
So, while it still is an absolute pleasure to hear Beam enter his stride so effortlessly – “Caught in the Briars”, for instance, opens with a warm, rustling cadence that oscillates beautifully around his vocal work, while “Baby Center Stage” continues the artist’s penchant for memorable album closers in the vein of “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” – the fact remains that for the first time in close to a decade, the American singer-songwriter has genuinely failed to impress. Elsewhere, more middling songs like “Joy” and “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” simply feel like cuts that weren’t good enough to make Kiss Each Other Clean
the first time around, while the honky-tonk and shrill backing vocals that form the crux of “Singers and the Endless Song” is a recipe for disaster. It may be palatable and generally inoffensive on a whole, but Ghost on Ghost
really goes down best when viewed as a supplement to other better, more transcendent material already out there.