Iron and Wine
Ghost on Ghost
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The days of Iron and Wine as the humble, bedroom-recorded folk project of bearded Floridian troubadour Sam Beam are long gone. He had a good run — two full-length albums and one EP of gently sublime acoustic ditties — but Iron and Wine is a different animal now, and basically has been since 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, when Beam gave into the urge to flesh out his warm, scruffy sound with rollicking full-band arrangements.
Since then, however, Beam has settled into a lush and opulent groove, having balanced slick ‘70s AM Gold arrangements with lite funk on 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean. There’s a similarly sumptuous and polished vibe to Beam’s latest Brian Deck-produced album, Ghost on Ghost, which is born of a similar aesthetic to its predecessor, albeit in a slightly more scaled-back form. The songs still come loaded with a studio full of musicians — among them members of Tin Hat Trio, Sex Mob, Antony and the Johnsons and Bob Dylan’s band — yet they breathe easy, never needlessly choked full of sounds for the sake of doing so.
The click-clack clatter of percussion that opens leadoff track “Caught in the Briars” suggests an intense explosion of sound to come, but it’s a misdirect. In short order, the song transitions to a breezy, jazz-pop gem with gentle touches of horns and the inimitable voice of Beam, whose soothing tones can bring any song a human center of gravity. “Briars” more or less sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which maintains a constant, steady cool. In a press release earlier this year, Beam said that, after recording two albums characterized by “anxious tension,” Ghost on Ghost “felt like a reward to myself after the way I went about making the last few.” That kind of positive, comfortable vibe resonates throughout the album; every song feels lived in, and radiates palpable warmth.
Whereas Beam’s early albums felt intimate in the sense of being stripped-down solo affairs, Ghost on Ghost has an altogether different kind of intimacy about it, one better associated with cozy booths in low-lit clubs and after-hours trysts. It’s actually — dare I say it — kind of sexy! When Beam sings, “It’s New Year’s Eve/ California’s gonna kill you soon,” over hypnotic backing vocals and disco strings on “Desert Babbler,” it’s hard not to picture him on a videotaped TV sound stage, draped in a white suit and bathed in twinkling spotlights. Similarly, the sparse, gently funky pulse of “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” with Beam’s talk of “new fruit hummin’ in the old fruit tree,” and a well-placed sax solo, seems ripe for soundtracking some sweet lovin’.
All of which isn’t to say that Beam doesn’t still, from time to time, ease back into the realm of familiar indie-folk sounds he’s done so well in the past. A song like the wispy, barely-there twinkle of “Joy” is practically second nature to a songwriter like Beam. And the upbeat “Grace for Saints and Ramblers,” while built on bright chimes of organ and a hand-clapping beat, still has the skeleton of a solo strummer circa 2004’s Our Endless Number Days at its heart. However, there’s still something more satisfying about hearing Beam successfully pull off a dark and smoky jam like “Singers and the Endless Song,” which bursts with vibrant flashes of horns, a serpentine bassline, and an almost call-and-response style dual-tracked vocal between Beam and a falsetto version of his whispery croon.
What Sam Beam attempts on Ghost on Ghost is not that far removed from Dan Bejar’s approach on Destroyer’s sophisti-pop pastiche Kaputt, yet where Bejar’s gaze was aimed back toward the 1980s, Beam’s is set about a decade earlier. It has a silky-smooth sheen about it, but there’s an earthy, analog vibe that keeps its songs grounded, and more importantly, makes them sound absolutely sublime, no matter how ornate or ethereal. Indeed, the direction that Beam has taken his music over the past half-decade has led him quite some distance from his lo-fi origins. But that’s just fine — he clearly knows what he’s doing.