For nearly a decade, Sam Beam, the core and only constant member of Iron and Wine, has whispered his way into the hearts of listeners with his soft, entrancing voice and minimalist folk music. Over the years, however, the style of his music has evolved, and the sound has advanced tremendously. Unlike in the beginning stages of the project, when Sam Beam was using a four-track recorder to compile his songs into demos, the current trend for Iron and Wine’s albums has been to embellish the poetic lyrical structures with a wider assortment of instrumentation. Since 2005’s In the Reins, which featured the instrumentally diverse Calexico as the backing band, Iron and Wine has continued to move away from the early sounds of stripped-down acoustic guitar and quiet vocals into a territory dominated by greater diversity and pop accessibility. This progression is apparent in Kiss Each Other Clean, the newest album by Iron and Wine, which delves into a more experimental realm than the band’s previous releases.
The opening track of the album, “Walking Far From Home,” is probably the track that is most reminiscent of the traditional Iron and Wine instrumental and lyrical structure, with a verse-only structure lacking choruses or bridges that begins each line of the verses with the same two statements. It evokes emotions of a departure from home or any other haven, with the primary means of conveyance being the images conjured by the lyrics.
Imagery is the crucial component of Beam’s lyrics. While the true interpretation of many of his lyrics are open-ended, and could seemingly be analyzed for a semester-long course, the images depicted are the truly important elements. His songs summon one to stroll through memories, to feel the bittersweet sting of love and the vice-like, ever-present grip of death. They allow one to understand that all humans share some of the same underlying experiences. “Walking Far From Home” is one of those tracks, urging the listener to remember the difficulty in leaving a comfortable niche, but also the vastness and beauty of that which was awaiting upon departure.
The most likely candidate for a first single from the album is “Tree by the River,” a bright, textured track filled with sweet and uplifting backing vocals, chime-like bell runs, a galloping pace set by shakers and the gentle buzz of a synthesizer. The latter is a new addition to the Iron and Wine instrumentation which plays a large part in the album. “Tree by the River” tells of long-lost relationships from childhood, a time when new lovers first etch their names in a tree near a romantic sanctuary, and when one of them truly begins to understand the harsh duality of love as being both “the thorns and the roses.” It is easily the most relatable and approachable track on the entire album.
It is at this point in the album where the experimentation begins to flourish. Tracks like “Monkeys Uptown” and “Rabbit Will Run” include chunky, Gorillaz-esque bass riffs and trill-filled guitar runs befitting a Mars Volta breakdown. Along with drum machines, quick-paced marimba fills and synth lines. “Monkeys Uptown” provides the listener with a glimpse at the possible future direction of Iron and Wine musically and allows the listener to decide whether the style transition that is occurring will be captivating or merely disappointing. But this track does little to fall short of the exciting, enthralling mark that it tries to make.
The album reaches one of its high points with the track “Godless Brother in Love,” a painfully beautiful song that is comparable to earlier Iron and Wine gems such as Our Endless Numbered Days’ “Naked As We Came” and The Shepherd’s Dog’s vampire-friendly “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” Light piano chords and the smooth stroking of a harp add a rich melodic layer to the song’s already immaculate structure. This track will likely please people across a wide listening spectrum. Unfortunately, once this high point is reached, the album loses steam for a substantial interval, barring the powerful “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me,” the closing track of the album which plays on for seven minutes of inventive instrumentation, squealing vocal melodies and prophetic vocal lines.
Stylistically , Kiss Each Other Clean can be thought of as Sam Beam “walking far from home.” What was once primarily folk rock is now a conglomeration of atypical structures, electronic sounds, saxophones and horns and varying percussion beats and fills. This venture into a more experimental musical domain is likely to catch some devoted Iron and Wine fans off-guard, but it also encompasses a great potential to attract a more diverse group of listeners and to please the already established fan base. The album won’t please all listeners, and many of its songs fall short of the usual Iron and Wine grandeur, but it’s hard to deny that Sam Beam is still a musical blessing to the world.