When the name Iron & Wine comes up, your first thought should be to Sam Beam. That is to say, the visual picture in your head should go there, not necessarily your sonic memory. Evoking said sonic memory though, your first inclination upon thinking of Iron & Wine may be to recall lush and hushed acoustic folk songs with rich pastoral lyrics that are really worth getting excited about, if only they didn’t make you so sleepy. Yeah, the first two Iron & Wine records, “The Creek Drank the Cradle” and “Our Endless Numbered Days” specialized in such gorgeous minimalism, and that’s largely what helped us to fall in love with Sam Beam, the man who pretty much did it all by himself. Well, on 2007’s “The Shepherd’s Dog”, Iron & Wine became a full-fledged band with auxiliary players. The resulting record was pretty much the exact step forwards that was needed to ensure the life of the band. The much wider array of instruments used really fleshed out what was essentially just a guy and his acoustic guitar into something more vibrant, intricate and gorgeous than most anyone thought possible. Well, now Beam and his cohorts are back at it again for the fourth Iron & Wine full-length, “Kiss Each Other Clean”. This, as the band moves from the indie excellence that is Sub Pop Records and onto the much huger Warner Bros. Records. Would signing to a major label turn the band into much more radio-friendly rock stars? If you think that’s the case, then you don’t know Sam Beam.
There are two big things about “Kiss Each Other Clean” that attract attention almost immediately. The first are Sam Beam’s vocals. Ever so slowly from album to album, Beam has gone from a whisper to a full-bodied singer. His vocals were still mostly hushed on “The Shepherd’s Dog”, but on the new record he sounds like a normal person with strong vocal range. Whether it’s a matter of finding the confidence in his vocal abilities or simply the opportunity to try something different, it’s a welcome change that proves he doesn’t need to resist belting it out to sound distinctive. Speaking of distinctive, amidst the massive array of instruments that appear all over this album are even more impressive than they were last time around, the most notable this time being the saxophone. Whenever it pops up, on tracks such as “Me and Lazarus” and “Big Burned Hand”, it dominates and creates an interesting dynamic that Iron & Wine haven’t really done before.
The band also takes aim at 70s AOR on “Kiss Each Other Clean”, something they’ve never tried before. Between the wah-wah guitar that makes an appearance on a track like “Rabbit Will Run” and the spiky Stevie Wonder-esque organ that permeates “Monkeys Uptown”, they’ve got the sound nailed down pretty good, with just a touch of modernity thrown in so you don’t get too time-disoriented. But you also get moments such as album closer “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me”, which spends the first few minutes sounding like the soundtrack to a lost 70s cop show about two mismatched partners that are tough on crime yet always break the rules and get in trouble with the chief. “Big Burned Hand” sounds straight out of a classic porn made in the era of “Deep Throat”, with maybe a little too much funk for its own good. Opening track “Walking Far From Home” flirts a little bit with gospel, while “Half Moon” shows its country-tinged roots. And for fans of Iron & Wine’s early material, “Godless Brother In Love” is one of the most gorgeous ballads the band has ever created, mixing piano with acoustic guitar and some seriously great vocal harmonies. Those sorts of beautiful harmonies are actually all over the record, either in tandem with Beam’s lead vocal to give it an extra bump, or more separately as backing “oohs”, “aahs” and “whoaas”.
The influences and instruments may have changed a bit in Iron & Wine’s sound, but there are a couple things you can always count on from Sam Beam and Company. Lyrically, Beam’s storytelling is as vivid as its ever been, and his wordplay is second to none. Despite his claims of being an agnostic, Beam also makes a number of Christian and Biblical references on this record, from the titular Lazarus in “Me and Lazarus” to a more general line-by-line bit like taking a “call from the Lord”. Of course his tales of nature and natural things has not been toned down in the least, nor the life lessons learned by characters both good and bad but always reaching some shade of grey. For example, on a song like the remarkably catchy first single “Tree By the River”, the lines “I mean the world/to a potty-mouthed girl/and a pretty pair of blue-eyed birds/’Time isn’t kind or unkind,’/you liked to say” are nothing short of wonderful. No matter what you listen to Iron & Wine for, the band is firing on all cylinders on “Kiss Each Other Clean”. It’s just the sort of forward progress needed to help sustain the group’s lifespan, though few have done quite this well. Fans of the sparse acoustic folk of the first two Iron & Wine records will surely be disappointed by the new album, but for everyone else, this marks yet another great addition to an already great catalogue.