Like any musician of Sam Beam’s calibre, it was inevitable that he would want to redefine his genre, expand his sound, enlist new kinds of influences into his music that he hadn’t really indulged in before. You might ask, why would one want to alter such a seemingly perfect aesthetic? Why, after a four year hiatus, does he not return with the bedroom folk majesty that made him a God of folklore to begin with? The answer, simply enough, is that Sam Beam is an artist, and as such, he has never recycled the same material at the chances of sounding redundant or unoriginal.
Over the years, Beam has built an impressive catalog of rich, folksy ballads under the moniker Iron & Wine, built on the strength of his songwriting and poetic conceit. Beginning with the grainy, lo-fi acoustics that fabricated his debut for Sub Pop, 2002′s The Creek That Drank The Cradle, and on to the more polished, diverse material found on 2007′s The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron & Wine has become one of the decade’s most accomplished folk outfits. On the latter, Beam broadened his horizons with a full studio at his disposal, performing with musicians rather than solo, adding more percussion to his repertoire, experimenting with afro-pop and blues, thus, marking his final departure from lo-fi, homemade recordings. Now, as his legion of fans have been breathlessly waiting, particularly since his sublime Daytrotter session surfaced last week, Beam pushes the limits even further with Kiss Each Other Clean, his fourth proper full length in nine years.
Beam wastes no time making his new found direction apparent, hinting with obscure electronic samples on opener “Walking Far From Home” that proceed to become louder and more prominent, till the remainder of the au natural instruments are shadowed by a heavy electronic bass that has never before existed on an Iron & Wine record. Here, Beam is suggesting that Kiss Each Other Clean may not be quite what you expected, and as an enthusiast of raw, unpolished materials, he’s taken a bold turn by upping the production value, and actually taking advantage of a studio for once. Not to say that it’s stripped of his usual folksy, Southern charm; Beam is one those rare performers that can dabble with other genres, but always manages to create that picturesque Iron & Wine sound.
An audacious use of synthesizers also materialize on the mysterious jam track “Monkeys Uptown”, where Beam curses and sings in auto-tune over ominous, psychedelically funky vibes. He doesn’t seem to commit to any influence though, leaving ample room for experimentation. He uses the screeching guitar distortion Sufjan Stevens did on The Age of Adz with “Rabbit Will Run,” not to mention xylophones, flutes, keyboards, and a slew of tropical percussion instruments. He amplifies the jazz and blues discourse of its predecessor on the sax heavy (compliments of TV On The Radio contributor Stuart Bogie) “Big Burned Hand.” Gospel keyboards and choirs, electric guitar, and a noteworthy dosage of funk appear as well, and remarkably it still sounds like an Iron & Wine cut. On lengthy album closer, “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me,” Beam does it all, beginning with jazz, transitioning into rock, and ending with his signature wails and moans.
Then, of course, we have the Iron & Wine we remember: the rich and ethereal harmonies, the ample stylistic devices, the acoustic ballads presented with his indistinguishable allure. “Tree By The River” displays it candidly, Beam painlessly crooning “Time isn’t kind or unkind, you liked to say. But I wonder to who what it is you’re saying today.” There’s enough of these songs here to indulge any of his earlier fans, the folksy doo-wop of “Half Moon,” the country appeal of “Glad Man Singing,” the earthly, piano textures of “Godless Brother In Love.” Beam has not forgotten who he is, or where he comes from, and though he may set off into uncharted territory on Kiss Each Other Clean, he is relentlessly dedicated to the music he grew up on. One can only applaud him for taking risks.