New Iron and Wine Super ‘Clean’

Sam Beam, the bearded gent behind Iron & Wine, never ceases to astound his listeners. Departing further from the soft acoustic fingerpicking of his earlier work while still remaining attuned to the emotion we’ve come to know him for, “Kiss Each Other Clean” continues to surprise us with roots we didn’t know we could connect to. Perhaps it’s his soft-spoken but emotive Southern drawl of a singing voice, perhaps it’s because of the lyrics that remain so instinctually and soulfully precise, but Beam has always made us feel at home with his music. “Kiss” is no different in that respect, but this album marks a clear evolution; this time around, he’s changed his sound significantly.

He has indeed broken free in a self-righteous sprint from his 2002 cover of Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” that made Iron & Wine a prominent name, a song that alongside his earlier albums somewhat typecasted his music and made him synonymous with mellow acoustic tracks. It seems that Beam has gotten tired of that synonymy. He has taken opportunities in both this and his last release, 2007’s “The Shepherd’s Dog,” to expand his sound. “Dog” brought us a jangling, fast piano blues tune; “Kiss” presents something entirely different.

Beam’s musical divergence is in the foreground of this album, peppering his songs at some points with synthesized electronic chords and at other times letting them dominate a song completely. This is the case with the premiere track, “Walking Far From Home,” a clear tone-setter which starts the album with a snare drum and an atmospheric drone to accompany Beam’s first lyrics. The song quickly develops into a calm and soulful piano riff before adding layers of electronic instruments and subdued, bitcrushed riffs in the background — that is, before it smashes straight into a full synth-bass breakdown.

Other tracks remain closer in line with early Iron & Wine albums, with songs such as “Tree By the River” and “Half Moon” offering quieter sentiments, though still marked with Beam’s newfound love of layered sound.

Beam hasn’t completely forgotten what simple music sounds like, though. By far the calmest song on the record, “Godless Brother In Love” is a straightforward, tender piano ballad accompanied by a classical guitar. Here, the simplicity provides excellent contrast to the rest of the album, but it doesn’t last for long.

“Big Burned Hand,” the song following the piano ballad, busts in with a funky sax melody and wah-pedaled bass. His decision to include organ, horns and a pronounced sax solo are surprising but they work well, a gritty declarative nose-thumbing at Beam’s earlier work. His use of horns is understated but effective, managing to suppress their blaring intensity while simultaneously keeping the feeling of eclecticism they bring in. From there, he keeps the groove going with “Glad Man Singing”. It’s mellow, but not in the “Such Great Heights” way. It’s more soulful, a nostalgic nod toward the ’70s aesthetic he brings to not only this track but “Me and Lazarus,” the second song on the album.

The groove that Beam hits with these tracks is kept up with “Monkeys Uptown,” which shares some low-key, layered-up aspects with “Rabbit Will Run,” though the latter is much more driven and swinging, using weighty and grim tones save a few well-placed whistles and bells.

Arguably the most prominent track is also the way Beam chooses to close the album, a seven-minute transformative song he so eloquently calls “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me.” It starts with an upbeat and light guitar riff, horns and an energetic beat. That striking pulse moves the song quickly through a few lapses in rhythm and toward a split, a fragmentation in pace flagged by a break in instrumentation. After this, Beam pulls the tempo back before gradually increasing it, repeating his lyrical form in an anaphoric set of proclamations: “We will become, become,” all the while gradually speeding the pace back up. By the end of the song, it has sped back up both in tempo and in tone, and expanded into a whirlwind of electric guitar and crash cymbal crescendo.

Though a radical departure from the days of his quiet whisper behind an acoustic guitar, “Kiss Each Other Clean” is still undoubtedly Iron & Wine; with the alterations to his sound presented with his latest release, Sam Beam has simply foregone the preliminary toe-dip and has cannonballed into the pool of emotional presence, attempting to exceed our definition of his sound and succeeding brilliantly.

As the last lyrics of the album call out in perpetual declarations of what is to come, we are all still left with an echoing question: What will Iron & Wine become next? Beam’s metamorphosis here is remarkable, but it hardly seems that he will sit down and declare his transformation complete.

Rating: 4/5 Stars