Review: Iron and Wine – Ghost on Ghost

iron and wine ghost
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Iron and Wine is the stage name of Sam Beam, and artist who comes equipped with warm, hushed vocals and an imitation-worthy beard. It’s easy for casual listeners to place Iron and Wine in the finely crafted box of Folk-inspired, Indie-rock. However, those listeners would be mostly wrong.

The earliest albums from Iron and Wine were modest recordings with wistful instrumentation—essentially Beam on acoustic guitar—and forlorn lyricism, but still contained the hint of musical playfulness that suggested that there was always something more.  But after a couple of albums, Beam began to show his hand and started experimenting with arrangements and styles pushing him well past the acoustic troubadour trappings. Now with Ghost on Ghost, the fifth studio release, Beam along with producer Brian Deck and a host of musicians including members from Dylan’s band, The Tin Hat Trio and Antony and Johnsons, Iron and Wine continues this evolution by crafting a lush album of AM radio pop—complete with funk and jazz grooves.

The album opener, “Caught in the Briars,” begins with a messy, percussive jangle; however, quickly settles into a bright pop song with Beam’s trademark mid-afternoon-warm vocals. The track includes marshmallow-soft horn accents and even closes with a time signature jazz shift. The song eases along, but it’s clear that Beam hasn’t abandoned his penchant for despondent love songs: “Where all of the naked boys/ Lay down beside her/ Sing her the saddest song/ All caught in the briars.”

The trend of warm upbeat numbers continues throughout the album, especially on songs like, “Grace for Saints and Ramblers.” While the 70’s-inpired arrangement offers hand-claps, an organ and lilting strings, Beam slyly sings, “Fountains full of penny wishes, parties full of pretty pictures/ Side by side with the birds and bees/ And we never said grace and never ever took a knee/ With the saints and ramblers, movie star handlers … But it all came down to you and I.” The song, emblematic of much of the album, is not so much a love song, but rather a meditation about living in an imperfect world yearning to be free.

On another standout track, “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” a perfectly timed saxophone solo accents the slow groove-funk throbbing. This song highlights Beam’s deft skill of changing the context of the familiar and making it improbably sublime. When Beam intones with hushed vocals, “I love you and you love me/ There’s new fruit humming in the old fruit tree,” what could easily be taken as lustful intimation, sounds instead like a warning.

On the ebullient, “Joy,” Beam’s reverb-laden voice just seems to float and linger as he puts aside the orchestration. The song seems to barely exist—as if it’s a nod to Beam’s acoustic past. When Beam explains in his soulful falsetto, “Deep inside the heart of this crazy mess/ I’m only calm when I get lost within your wilderness,” he reveals the heartfelt, poetic daydreaming that’s really at the heart of Iron and Wine. Apparently, love doesn’t come easy. [B+]

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