Make no mistake, Sam Beam is not singing to you anymore. He’s no longer in your bedroom, every creak and fan whir audible to your keen ears. He’s not even in his bedroom anymore. And no, he isn’t making sweet, passionate, delicate love to you with his voice (Sorry, ladies . . . and guys). You won’t be falling asleep to his lullabies tonight. Those days (and evenings) are long gone.
Instead, with Kiss Each Other Clean, the fourth studio LP from Iron & Wine, Beam follows up the production and rhythm infused The Shepherd’s Dog by further augmenting the sparse Iron & Wine foundation, making the days of whispered, lo-fi preciousness appear a long-lost dream. He’s singing to the whole world now, and he’s doing it with a lot of help: saxophones (They’re officially back! See: Girls’ Broken Dreams Club and Destroyer’s Kaputt), crunchy synths, tribal rhythms, marimba, digitized drums, chimes, glockenspiels, hell, it’s like a Decemberists record up in here. The density will surely have Iron & Wine fans pretty polarized, and for good reason. It’s just not really what we all fell in love with. But, fortunately for us, that beard isn’t going anywhere. And along with the face fur, some of Beam’s most beloved qualities are still in tact. Perhaps just not in enough abundance.
As far as Southern-gothic, Faulkner-esque narratives go, Beam still knows how to swing them. “Me and Lazarus” sees the narrator recounting days spent with a biblical friend shoveling ashes, riding in riverboats, and feeding feverish babies. “Tree By the River” is southern love story of teenage nostalgia. “Half Moon” feels like a church hymn. “Rabbit Will Run” recounts a criminal’s arrest, both metaphorically and literally. “Big Burned Hand” sings of white-hot pistols and gasoline toting deities.
It’s just that something feels slightly off when the instrumentation is glowing all over the place–digi-fuzzy, and flickering–while he sings about trees by the river and half-moons. These gloriously archaic images lose some of their power when continually engulfed by dense, modern production–especially dense production that does not seem aesthetically congruent. We hear Beam’s golden pipes howling, but they lose some of their power and mystique with half-assed funk and free-jazz sax swarming around them. It’s almost as if the stories become secondary to the instrumentation, which, though definitely interesting, is not powerful or compelling enough to warrant the amount of time we spend without words. It lacks the human touch, that feeling of hominess that Beam captured so expertly in his early recordings. A lot of the time, we’re getting an immediate kick from these strange and unfamiliar sounds from Beam. To an extent, it’s instant gratification, but it feels to be too calculated, and disturbingly inorganic. This is not The Creek Drank the Cradle, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Iron & Wine aura weren’t lost under all these layers of slick, emotionally shallow instrumentation. All things aside though, a few tracks work with the production, and the outcome is pretty stunning.
Opener, “Walking Far From Home,” Beam’s first lyrical onslaught, sees the guy firing off rounds of vivid imagery and stirring metaphors over swashy distortion, wah-wahed funk swells, skittering drums, and piano, until the track gloriously crashes and burns under the crunch of low-res organ fuzz. As always, he has a stronghold over vocal melody, and it shows from the get-go. But here, he ornaments the lead vocals with Mike Love style high-soaring harmonies, introducing yet another mainstay of the record. Backing vocals, mostly in a high register, consistently populate this record.
“Rabbit Will Run” is a tribal, jazz-flute toting, darkly downtempo funk rocker turned Floyd pysche exploration, but it fades out at its most interesting jam. “Godless Brother in Love” is a lush piano ballad, sprinkled with flamenco style staccato guitar, and soothing harmonies. It’s about the closest we get to the old sound, but it still lacks that human spontaneity, the unrefined feel Beam’s music should always possess. This stuff is refined, hi-fi, digital age work. It’s probably the first time anyone’s ever thought an Iron & Wine song was “Epic, bro!” but therein lies some of this record’s issues. The grandiosity feels a little cheap, and often doesn’t appear to have been seamlessly conjured.
When the grandiosity succeeds, it’s pleasing, perhaps even wonderful. But when it fails, which it does every so often (even at moments on the strongest tracks), it just kind of makes you wonder why things couldn’t just stay the way they were. For the most part, there’s simply a hell of a lot going on instrumentally, and it’s almost too much to take in. It’s as if Beam and a bunch of session musicians had a thousand ideas for the album’s aesthetic and, instead of sticking with one, went with them all. Rather than slowly bringing each musical thought in with subtlety at various points throughout the album, they all arrive at the same time. There’s little control and few quiet moments. Sections of sheer beauty, of heartbreak, vivid storytelling, and lush instrumentation exist, but they only slightly outweigh some of the more awkward, less sincere-sounding segments. On the surface, this record sounds great, reveals some striking production, and works as a breezy, head-nodder. But it seems to lack emotional depth amidst its instrumental vastness. Beam is a spectacular singer, a fantastic songwriter, and a guitarist of the highest creed, but perhaps he is not cut out for arena-scale production. You’ll have a lot of catchy melodies to sing in the shower, but at the end of the day, Beam might be walking too far from home.