It’s interesting that being a fan of Iron & Wine isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for enjoying (or not enjoying, for that matter) Sam Beam’s latest album, Ghost on Ghost. Artistic evolution (and devolution) happens all the time — how different could Ghost on Ghost be?
Well, for longtime fans of the hirsute folkie, the answer is: very. Beam — who performs as Iron & Wine — made his reputation on a host of recordings that caused the rock-crit elite to spout buzzwords like “stark”, and “lo-fi”. Even Iron & Wine’s breakthrough record, 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, wasn’t your typical “artist discovers clean production, loses soul” sob story; rather, Beam retained his vaunted guy-with-a-guitar aesthetic, the cleaned-up sound only serving to remove Beam from the realm of the tape-hiss-styled folkie, delivering delicate guitar lines and whispered vocals directly into your ear. Listen to that record alone in the dark, and its’ clarity and intimacy might just fool you, as you rouse from a deep, foggy sleep, into thinking that Beam’s on a chair next to your bed, singing you awake.
The intimacy isn’t quite as present on Ghost on Ghost. Iron & Wine’s sound has been stealthily expanding with each record, mind you; this isn’t necessarily an abrupt stylistic change. There was a lot more clatter on Endless Numbered Days‘s textured, ominous follow-up, The Shepherd’s Dog, but by all accounts, Kiss Each Other Clean was Beam’s do-or-die moment. The 2011 record introduced a full-band aesthetic, and all the tarted-up production and horn sections a shaggy indie purist could shake his meager little fists at. Ghost on Ghost seems to confirm that this is the new Iron & Wine: tuneful as ever, but also lush and lively.
Which, as it turns out, is fine. Should we not appreciate good songs, whatever the vessel? Beam’s hushed intimacy and delicate fingerpicking delivered a host of terrific tunes; but he’s also got some real corkers up his sleeve that were meant to be augmented by cooing background vocals, swelling horns, and skittering drums. The worst one could say about the music is how immediately it distracts from the lyrics; there was no such concern when Beam was whispering his compositions over a barely-audible acoustic guitar, but with electric pianos and horns and a rogue’s gallery of all things percussive in the mix, it takes a few listens to discover that, at their core, these are some of Beam’s most confessional, immaculately constructed songs.
And it’s delightful to have them couched in such immediate beauty. “Joy” seems the immediate standout — it’s reflective enough to have been an Endless Numbered Days-era composition, and would certainly sound find delivered in that mode, but those euphoric “ooohs” are enough to make a Ke$ha cover sound poignant and heartfelt. Opener “Caught in the Briars” is fraught with the skittish, genre-hopping energy of a vintage Paul Simon song (solo era, naturally), tipping the hat to African music without fetishizing it, eventually settling into a Band-esque country groove; “The Desert Babbler”, meanwhile, sounds like a winding drive through the American southwest, much like Iron & Wine’s dusty, gorgeous EP with Calexico from a few years back. The giddy, propulsive “Graces For Saints and Ramblers” is too gorgeous to describe, waves of background vocals cascading over Beam’s rapid-fire prose, driven by a snappy, four-on-the-floor chorus rhythm and an insanely catchy refrain. It sounds classic-rock a lot — in spots, like ’70s AM rock, evoking Paul Simon or James Taylor or, in the case of “Saints and Ramblers”, Fleetwood Mac — but without being slavish homage or hollow retro-fetishism. On the contrary, Ghost on Ghost is as deliriously organic-sounding as Iron & Wine has ever been; not a note rings false. Each note feels earned, lived-in.
Does it feel like another classic? To these ears, it does, although it remains to be seen if the Iron & Wine faithful will jive with Beam’s expanded vision. Then again, we’ve all collectively allowed Bon Iver and Phosphorescent to break out of their folksy modes and create something with a larger scope than the bedroom, so it seems we’re owed the same courtesy to Beam. After all, he had the courtesy not to gobsmack us with a radically different product; he’s been easing us in, it turns out, album after album. Ghost on Ghost feels like a culmination, and a tantalizing preview of things to come. And, not for nothing, a potential album of the year candidate.