Artist: Iron & Wine
Album: Kiss Each Other Clean
Label: Warner Bros.
Whereas silence played as great a role as sound on earlier releases, such as Our Endless Numbered Days, Beam feels compelled to contract a musician for every moment where he’s not busying himself on the new album. You can hear serene interludes on opener “Walking Far From Home”, where Beam details his ennui on piano, but you’ll also have to accept the sonic undulations weaving in and out of the narrative. Perhaps, the opener, though, is the perfect crossroads. The vocal centricity is familiar, but if fans can’t weather the song’s theatrics, a Sam Beam this far from home isn’t for them.
Having expressed desire to create 70s-era pop songs, Beam comes closest on “Glad Man Singing”. His tracing guitar walks in, soon accompanied by mallets and drums beating something mystic like an equinoctial séance. Too much? That’s a bit how the record is at times.
The album’s saccharine title might be an apt synecdoche for songs like the crisp “Half Moon”, or “Tree By The River”, where Beam reminisces about a summery affair, but the electronic tapestry at the close of “Monkeys Uptown” hints at a growing uneasiness in the songwriter. The record sounds a lot less interested in smooches than Iron & Wine’s earlier airy aphrodisiacs, and a lot more so in fornication. Not lyrically speaking, though Beam drops the f-bomb more than a few times.
Kiss Each Other Clean finishes with “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough”, the reward for the fans that have embraced the new sound. Beam’s voice is more gravelly than ever and after each psychedelic chorus, we’re teased to a muddy guitar break— which you could call a solo were it not Iron & Wine. Near halfway in, the finale loses its distractions and slows into a romping spiritual, refraining on the line “We will become”, getting thornier in a forest already thronging with darkness, alluding to Beam’s own transformation. Legions and doubt, targets and guns, and ice cream cones are just some of the things Beam prophesies about as the song swells to its— and I use the word sparingly— epic conclusion.
2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog was a shift in the paradigm, but it hardly braced listeners for Kiss Each Other Clean. Iron & Wine’s experiment is a stroke of boldness and not blandness, but there is an unwarranted perfectionist hiding out on Kiss Each Other Clean, inserting jingles where melody ought to sustain the listener. Beneath the occasional excess of weirdness, the record does glisten with the great song craft expected from Beam, but also teases the question: Is there a future where Beam hangs his guitar up in favor of a synthesizer?
Grade: B (85)