Musicians, in interviews, constantly talk about artistic
growth, trying new things, getting better. With all the bravado scattered about,
it’s no wonder fans are disappointed when bands and solo artists don’t up their
games with every album. But there are those that can, and do, improve every
time they set foot in the studio. Even when you think she/he/it has reached an
apex, they surprise you.
Iron & Wine seemed to have hit a career-defining peak on
its last album The Sheperd’s Dog. The
combination of leader Sam Beam’s literate, melodic folk-pop songs with
arrangements that incorporated African rhythms and busy but not cluttered
arrangements took I&W to a new level, pushing it far beyond the intimate
indie folk for which it had become known. It’s a landmark work that raised the
stakes in an already acclaimed career. Surely, one could be forgiven for
thinking Beam would never make a better record.
But Kiss Each Other
Clean is, in fact, a superior LP. Expanding on the developments of The Sheperd’s Dog, Beam and stalwart
producer Brian Deck construct another intricate, engaging backdrop for a
ridiculously strong set of tunes. Beam’s love of ‘70s California rock/pop remains intact, and his
flirtation with African rhythms continues apace. But Beam, Deck and their
musicians plunder music history further, from ‘70s funk and soul to ‘00s
electronic indie pop, subsuming everything into serving the song at hand. On
“Rabbit Will Run,” for example, the musicians layer a 6/8 melody over African
grooves, peppering the track with flute, muted trumpet and distorted organ
solos. The vibraphone-inflected “Glad Man Singing” explores spacey pop not
unlike Air, if that duo had grown up in the American South instead of France. The
band spices the enigmatic “Monkeys Uptown” with clavinet and electronic
percussion, while “Big Burned Hand” goes straight for the acid funk jugular,
like an unusually contemplative theme for a ‘70s black action flick. The
seething, odd “Yr City is a Sucker” blends soul guitar, Afrobeat groove, meaty
baritone saxophone, Euro disco atmosphere and a noisy coda into an epic that
sounds like Giorgio Moroder producing Fela Kuti.
For longtime fans, the pair is smart enough to include plenty
of more traditional (i.e. more easily accessible) I&W pieces. The folk
popping “Tree By the River” boasts a Simon & Garfunkel vibe, while “Half
Moon” wouldn’t sound out of place on an Emitt Rhodes record. “Walking Far From
Home” may have a distorted edge on the guitars, but it’s a singalong piece of
folk rock that’s a natural single. The almost impossibly lovely “Godless
Brother in Love” breaks hearts as surely as it soothes brows, like Leonard
Cohen donating a ballad to the Beatles for Abbey Road.
Beam also drops his lyrical smart bombs with casual aplomb, like “He’s an
emancipated punk and he can dance” from “Me and Lazarus” or “Those monkeys
uptown told you not to fuck around” from “Monkeys Uptown.” And, of course,
Beam’s breathy vocals remain a constant no matter what the setting.
If it almost sounds like ambition run wild, rest assured
that Beam and Deck keep firm control of the proceedings, never letting any
arrangement get out of hand. The song always rules, no matter how dizzying the
musical filigrees, and these tunes are some of Beam’s strongest. The marriage
here of song and sonic is heady and addictive, the sound of an artist using
both old and new tools to evolve beyond his prior achievements. There aren’t
many musical artists that can be counted on to get better with every record.
With Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron
& Wine firmly, confidently, beautifully steps into that rarified pantheon.
Far From Home,” “Big Burned Hand,” “Godless Brother in Love,” “Yr City is a
Sucker” MICHAEL TOLAND