Kiss Each Other Clean

Some artists are content to make a template of their first successful album, repurposing their original burst of creativity to lessening degrees of satisfaction. Not so with Sam Beam, the iconoclast behind Iron and Wine. His first albums were mostly solo, stark, lo-fi, whispered meditations that rotated around religious and southern gothic imagery. With each successive album Beam broadens his musical palate by introducing novel instruments, innovative arrangements, alternating rhythms, and an expanding band. His voice has lost that whispery fragility, graduating to falsetto, growling rock, and passionate crooning.

Beam displayed his changing musical temperament on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, an album that confirmed Iron and Wine’s status as something more than an indie/folk act. It’s psychedelic rock and textured production placed the band firmly in the pantheon of genre defying artists like Sufjan Stevens, Fiery Furnaces, and Vetiver. Kiss Each Other Clean combines elements of Iron & Wine’s rock and folk past while still allowing for experimentation. Brian Deck’s return as producer –he worked on the previous three albums - makes for a natural progression. His guidance allows Beam’s experimentation to evolve organically. Continuity is also created by bringing the rhythm section from Beam’s touring band into the sessions. The production is textured and delicately crafted. Like his last album Beam collects influences that range from African polyrhythms to pop/rock harmonies. According to his website Beam mined his parent’s record collections for inspiration; that includes ideas generated from reggae, folk, blues, and jazz recordings. Saxophone and piano in particular are instruments that fascinate the writer. We find them playing larger roles throughout this album. Deck and Beam also use synthesizers and distortion liberally, adding to the mysterious quality of the songs.

There’s always been something a little unsettling about Beam’s songs. He writes portentous songs with vaguely ominous edging. Our Endless Numbered Days, with its domestically themed songs, still managed to weave reminders of mortality into the mix. The Shepherds Dog featured natural themes built on an underbelly of roiling politics. Both albums featured multiple biblical references, a subject that seems to fascinating Beam. Kiss Each Other Clean sticks to his lyrical modus operandi. His lyrics are oblique but beautiful, letting each listener translate the meaning on a personal level. Beam has also become comfortable with the occasional use of profanity, a tool that helps to punctuate emotional points. His love affair with religious figures presents itself most obviously in “Me and Lazarus,” a Huck Finn-like traveling parable song, but there are plenty more references as you plow through Beam’s meaty lyrics. There’s something profound being recorded here even if the message isn’t obvious. Beam is a masterful storyteller who reels you in with language even if the plot evades you. It’s hard to hold expectations for where Beam and Iron and Wine will take you. It’s best to sit back, let the band take the wheel, and enjoy the journey.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix Host)