Each of Sam Beam’s formal albums as Iron and Wine has followed a noticeable trend of upping the density of instrumentation on his brand of traditional folk songs. His 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, featured nothing but that: songs, 11 of them, short and sweet and carried by little more than Beam’s acoustic guitar and voice, which itself seldom rose past a whisper. By his third, 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, he’d begun to reach into significantly thicker arrangements – funk guitars, accordions, and even vocal distortion effects were among the most surprising new elements – but he did it without compromising his greatest asset. But by the time its 2011 follow-up, Kiss Each Other Clean, dropped, it was starting to look like he’d fallen for a whole new full-time occupation as bandleader first, songwriter second.
This progression is furthered once again on Iron and Wine’s fifth LP, Ghost on Ghost, with altogether less interesting results than ever before. On Ghost, Beam indulges even further into the adolescent, summertime, oak tree makeout session, swimmin’ hole nostalgia that so heavily pervaded Kiss, and the tools he’s chosen this time around reflect that feeling of deep reminiscence accordingly: superficially gorgeous, affecting, even vivid, but lacking endurance. Horns, organs, violins, vibraphones – you name it, it’s probably here, and it probably sounds great. Ghost is about as aurally enjoyable as first listens to Iron and Wine albums come – much less so for every spin after that.
The album cover’s framed snapshot of two youths engaged in foreplay prefaces Ghost as comprehensively as the lyrics do on opener “Caught in the Briars”: “Free as the morning birds, fragile as china / She’s stuck in the weakest heart of South Carolina / Where all of the naked boys would lay down beside her / Sing her the saddest song, all caught in the briars.” For whatever reason, Beam revisits that very imagery almost verbatim on “Sundown (Back in the Briars)” and “New Mexico’s No Breeze” like a guy trying a little too hard to remember what losing his virginity felt like. It’s miles apart from “Naked as We Came”, unfortunately, but that’s not to say he’s gotten any lazier.
Actually, Beam still manages to turn around one of his most impressive pieces to date with “Baby Center Stage”, the rightful closer that extends Iron and Wine’s perfect streak of excellent album caps – most recently, Shepherd’s Dog’s “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” and Kiss’ “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me”. It’s also the most understated track here, and that’s no coincidence. There’s no real reason for a sax solo, and for once, he doesn’t champ at the bit for that extra layer.
Beam is out touring in support of Ghost, though his setlists still span every Iron and Wine album – all the way back to Creek. That’s very telling of Beam’s mindset during Ghost’s creation; cuts such as “The Desert Babbler” and lead single “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” should prove far more accessible on-stage than they do on-record. They’ll certainly afford Beam more chances to bounce between his folkie-vagabond and maestro personas onstage.
But as puzzle pieces to a full-length album, at least a third of these songs come off as superfluous and unnecessary. Take the moment when penultimate track “Lover’s Revolution” jumps abruptly and senselessly into an instrumental, full-on bebop breakdown for exactly 40 seconds, then picks up right where it left off, a slow-creeper buried under horns. It’s a great demonstration of the range of sonic shapes Beam’s project can cover, and also why that can, at times, be an overrated criteria.
Less is (almost always) more.
Essential tracks: “The Desert Babbler”, “Baby Center Stage”.