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Iron and Wine returns with a new sound

Chris Collum | Monday, January 31, 2011

“Kiss Each Other Clean” is the fourth studio album by folk rock craftsman Sam Beam, the creative force behind Iron & Wine. After releasing a pair of albums and a few EPs that consisted largely of Beam’s acoustic strumming and hushed melodies, he teamed up with numerous other musicians for the politically charged “The Shepherd’s Dog,” released in 2007.

“The Shepherd’s Dog” was very well received by most critics, and began to slowly expand Beam’s audience. This was in large part due to the album’s closing track, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” in the “Twilight” movie and best-selling soundtrack.

Like many independent artists who are discovered through movie soundtracks, Iron & Wine’s first post-Twilight album comes on a major label for the first time. Despite this good news, the new label may be a cause of concern for longtime fans worried about Beam’s direction.

Still, veteran fans need not worry, as Beam is as good as he has ever been, if not better. Album opener “Walking Far from Home” has been floating around on the Internet for a few months and acts as a manifesto for the album’s thematic elements. It is almost certainly one of Beam’s finest melodies to date.

Beam has always had a distinctly vivid writing style, and that certainly has not changed on this album. “Kiss Each Other Clean” discusses themes of youth, faith and love in one fell swoop, with a conspicuously pastoral tone.

“Tree by the River” is a great example of this. It is a tale of adolescent romance, presumably set in the South Carolina countryside in which Beam grew up. “I recall the sun in our faces/Stuck and leaning on braces/And being strangers to change” perfectly describes what he is singing about, and gives the listener a sense of his meaning as well.

Avid Iron & Wine listeners may be wondering how similar or different this new album is. “Walking Far from Home” should answer that question and quell doubts about the record’s quality within the first minute. For the first time in his career Beam made a record that sounds like it was actually made by a band, not just by someone with a guitar. This record is very musically diverse, incorporating everything from horns to a harp.

Beam also uses bizarre-sounding guitar effects and even some electronic elements on “Kiss Each Other Clean.” This may lead some listeners to draw parallels to fellow folkie Sufjan Steven’s latest album “The Age of Adz” released late last year, in which Stevens also used electronic elements to compliment what was generally a folk rock album otherwise. Beam also has become a master at multi-tracking his own voice, in much the same vein as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.

Finally, there are moments on the record, such as the last part of seven-minute closing epic “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me,” that go for a “fuzzed-out” or “cluttered” feel, bringing to mind so-called “fuzz-folk” artists such as Neutral Milk Hotel or The Microphones that saw their heyday at the beginning of the last decade.

What makes this album great is undoubtedly Beam’s lyrics. A few lines from album highlight “Rabbit Will Run” shows what attracts listeners to Iron & Wine’s strange poetry: “We all live in grace at the end of the day/And we’ve armed all the children we thought we’d betrayed/And I still have a prayer, but too few occasions to pray.”