Album review: Iron & Wine — Kiss Each Other Clean

I’m not sure that it’s possible for a stylistic change to be signaled faster than Iron & Wine does on Kiss Each Other Clean. Granted, four years have passed since the last proper album from singer/songwriter Sam Beam hit record store shelves — and even that one had begun to stray from his formula of acoustic guitar and hushed vocals — but the slight departure taken with the accompaniment on The Shepherd’s Dog is nothing compared to the leap taken here.

With the first few notes of opener “Walking Far From Home,” all preconceptions of what defines an Iron & Wine album are shattered. Beam is not merely going to add a few instruments to create a more fleshed out sound — he’s headed to the studio with saxophones, synthesizers, flutes, and even some vocal tweaking.

While 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog clearly played like an artist wanting to stretch out his sound a bit, Kissing Each Other Clean shows Beam is ready to move on to completely new territory. That’s not to say that there is no more room for growth in the realm of “man with guitar” music, but it’s certainly not surprising that a musician would decide there’s more for him to explore elsewhere. Heck, even John Darnielle invites at least one other person to his recording sessions these days. So on an individual level it seems as though the time for growth has hit Iron & Wine.

But it makes no sense to spend all of this time talking about how an artist has changed or grown without actually addressing the musicality of these endeavors. In other words, is it any good?

Yes. Yes it is. I cannot emphasize those words enough. The opening lyrics are so typical of Beam’s blasphemous gospel (“I was walking far from home / Where the names were not burned along the wall / Saw a building high as heaven / But the door was so small, door was so small”), yet his processed voice makes it hard to just listen at first. Perhaps I was so off guard initially that the brilliance at play here couldn’t be heard. But after a couple spins “Walking Far From Home” finally clicked. And soon after, the soulful funk of “Me and Lazarus” made sense and its deep groove embedded itself as an earworm for the next few days. Not long after that the entire album took hold and did not leave my stereo.

Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) at a 2006 concert at Br...

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Whether it was the sweet pop confection of “Tree by the River,” or the sinister crawl of “Rabbit Will Run,” or the all-out crazy harmonies and anthemic choruses of the closer, the little studio effects stopped feeling contrived. These are not simple little tricks to give the album a quaint ’70s AM radio feel in an effort to capture the next great hipster movement. Rather, that era of pop gems that felt so comfortable on your parents’ hi-fi now acts as a backdrop for Beam’s striking lyricism. It also gives him the chance to open his voice beyond those typical hushed tones and shows off just how beautifully he can sing. Honestly all of this heavy handed production serves to show off the man that has been all of Iron & Wine until this point even better than his solo acoustic work.

That is not to say that his earlier albums are weak. Rather, it emphasizes how much a great artist has managed to continue maturing in his work. The first few tracks are an excellent sign of the beauty, depth, and sweetness that this “new” Iron & Wine are capable of.

After the middle of the album almost makes the listener believe that the traditional Iron & Wine will return shortly (“Monkeys Uptown” and “Rabbit Will Run” could easily have fit on The Shepherd’s Dog, while “Half Moon” and “Godless Brother In Love” would have worked on his first few releases) the best turns out, as the saying goes, to be saved for last. The funky saxophone and bubbly synths that start off “Big Burned Hand” serve as a playground for rather deep and religiously charged words. Then comes my favorite track, “Glad Man Singing,” with its brilliant verses (“Yonder come a glad man singing a song … About a sad man saying ‘they’ve forgotten how’ / And a baby quit sucking when the milk went sour / And the mouth of the river is wide”) and gorgeous harmonies that end each one.

Everything culminates in the appropriately extended trip that is “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me,” seemingly pulling together all of the elements built upon throughout this musical journey. It is brought to a close with a muted crescendo of driving horns, synthesizers, and drums behind Beam’s exploration of  the opposite themes behind his music (allegiance and doubt, hammer and nail, target and gun, etc.) before concluding, “Become both now and then / We will become, become / Become again and again / We will become, become.” Perhaps this is his way of pointing out that this music is not a definitive statement of Iron & Wine — that moving forward entails becoming both the past and the future and continued progression.

That’s a rather exciting premise for a musician whose work, past and present, can be labeled nothing short of breathtaking.

Kiss Each Other Clean is out now on Warner Bros.

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