Sam Beam’s brainchild Iron & Wine has enjoyed a steady upturn in the 9 years since his début, The Creek Drank the Cradle. Beam, who essentially is the band – he writes all the songs, sings them all, and is the only official ‘member’ of it – and he has blazed an admirable folk trail behind him. With his new release Kiss Each Other Clean, Beam has put another spin on a genre he has already helped to reshape.
Iron & Wine’s sound is defined, rather unsurprisingly, by Beam himself. His tremulous, distinctive vocal style is largely responsible for I&W’s continual popularity, not to mention its propulsion from little-known folk act to one of the genre’s leading lights. Three years have passed since his last record, the excellent The Shepherd’s Dog, which began Beam’s dalliances with a full band accompaniment, rather than the solo vocal-and-guitar style which had previously stuck in the minds of folk aficionados worldwide.
The Shepherd’s Dog took the core elements of Beam’s music – storytelling lyrics, philosophical musings and neat instrument arrangements – and added sparks of electricity to it, whether through synthesisers or an electric guitar into. Kiss Each Other Clean carries these same traits, but has accentuated and emphasised them, making it that rarest of things: an electric folk album. And a good one at that.
Yet tapping into orchestral instrumentation, using tuned percussion and saxophone amongst others, has also added to Beam’s sound. For a record that sounds so plugged-in, Beam’s ability to make songs seem intimate and immediate is very impressive: it feels more like you’re listening to a band play in your front room than to an arena full of people. This isn’t to demean Kiss Each Other Clean‘s accessibility, far from it, but simply points to its leading man’s deftness and skill with the proverbial conductor’s baton.
Opening track ‘Walking Far From Home’ starts in unfamiliar territory, with a modified, electrified version of Beam’s voice declaring “I was walking far from home/Where the names were not burned into the stone”. We know, immediately, that although this record may represent a different direction for Iron & Wine, we can still recognise the man behind the songwriting pen.
This very feature of KEOC is probably what makes Beam’s fourth album so listenable. While tracks like ‘Godless Brother In Love’ and ‘Tree By The River’ recall Iron & Wine’s best vintage, ‘Big Burned Hand’ and ‘Monkeys Uptown’ work channel it into new endeavours, showing both Beam’s ability to innovate and his desire to remain fresh. Stale is not a word associable with this record by any means. The punchy sax of ‘Me and Lazarus’ or the jagged, Sonic Youth-esque finale to ‘Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me’ reveal other sides to Beam’s musical talent other than the acoustic swells which lifted him into the limelight.
On occasion, however, this same desire dilutes the product, as on the overlong ‘Rabbit Will Run’, and while Beam’s voice can entrance at times, some of the songs don’t quite hang together as well as perhaps they should, either due to overly stylised instrumentation or simply a lack of hooks. Kiss Each Other Clean is superb at its best, but struggles to maintain its quality throughout. The magnificent opening track is the album’s finest moment, despite strong competition from the chilling beauty of ‘Godless Brother In Love’, and any record which blows you away within the first few minutes is always going to suffer from high expectations throughout.
That said, Kiss Each Other Clean is a terrific album for the most part, able to combine what makes Iron & Wine such an intriguing proposition with an electrified backbone which hums underneath each song like a dormant volcano; it still produces explosive moments, but in the main it simply adds to the spectacle. It’s a fantastic listen, whether in the thralls of summer or the depths of winter, and Beam’s ability to spin a yarn shines through.
History states that it’ll be a few years yet before the next Iron & Wine record, so it’s a good thing that Kiss Each Other Clean is one to savour.
Best tracks: ‘Walking Far From Home’, ‘Tree By The River’, ‘Godless Brother In Love’.
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