“I saw sinners making music/And I’ve dreamt of that sound,” Sam Beam declares in “Walking Far From Home,” the epic opener on Iron & Wine’s latest album, Kiss Each Other Clean. With help from his bandmates, Beam spends the record defining that sound, shaping it, until the quicksilver light that beckons in his poetry pulses behind the eclectic pop vision he offers here.
Expanding on 2007’s Shepherd’s Dog, where Beam reinvented his formerly lo-fi, monochrome acoustic sound, and allowed it to bloom into a richer, kaleidoscopic sonic array, Kiss Each Other Clean proves to be his most accessible record yet. You might think that’s because this is Iron & Wine’s major league debut on Warner Brothers Records after leaving the indie pleasures of Sub Pop, but Beam says that’s not the case. Speaking from his home outside of Austin, Texas, he explains, “We made the record and then Warner Brothers came knocking after we finished. It’s not that Sub Pop did anything wrong, they’re like family. I just wanted to do something different, to shake it up.”
Kiss Each Other Clean takes Shepherd’s Dog’s more upbeat, poly-rhythmic textures and adds pop warmth and California-style harmonic bliss. “This record has a bunch of parts that feel really nostalgic. Some songs definitely have a late ‘60s, early ‘70s radio-friendly vibe going on. The record still has a lot going on, but it feels more focused than the last. It’s a little more cocky.”
If you’re familiar with Iron & Wine’s hushed, spare testimonials, the intense intimacy of Beam’s early songs, and his cotton-rich voice, then “cocky” is the last adjective you would use to describe his music. But from the jazzy strut of “Monkeys Uptown” with its Stevie Wonder-like, burbling Moog-synthesizers, to the atonal, horns-soaked swagger of “Big Burned Hand,” courtesy of Stuart Bogie from Antibalas and TV On The Radio, this sounds like a bolder band.
“Tree by the River,” one of the album’s standouts, embraces us with the plush pop glow of burnished love, long gone, a smile of a scar. Beam sings, “Maryanne, do you remember/the tree by the river/when we were seventeen,” breaking all our rusty hearts as his sister Sarah’s voice blends with his in teenage-symphonic harmony. Brian Wilson should record this song – his still poignant but damaged voice would make it ache that much more.
Beam explains, “That song was started more than a decade ago. I write all the time, though, and try to make a discipline of it. And treat it a bit like a job in a good way. We really had a great time making this record, kind of picked up where we left off the last time. Records I heard while growing up by Fleetwood Mac and Elton John were in my mind. There’s also more of an R&B flavor to this, as well as jazz.”
Beam’s imagistic lyricism still demands much of the focus. From the biblical resonance of “Me and Lazarus” to the haiku-like precision of “New Moon,” he continues to spin out cryptic, contemporary folktales in song. Beam says, “These are the kind of characters I have in mind, my mythology. It’s a bit like a morality play… I mean characters like Lazarus have a moral weight. We all know here’s a guy who went to the other side and back, but never told us about it.”
Circling back like the pilgrim in “Walking Far From Home,” Sam Beam testifies to his experience, real and imagined. This electro-psychedelic hymn, complete with industrial synths and surreal imagery, feels apocalyptic in tone – a spiritual quest through a blasted land. Reminiscent of Dylan’s “Hard Rain” in its soul-exhaustion and catalogue of disturbing discoveries – both grim and beautiful – this song invites us to take the journey with Iron & Wine, one filled with incantation, memory, and grace.