Sam Beam made his name early on as a folky four-tracker, introducing himself on 2002’s The Creek Drank The Cradle as a serene and sensitive guitar plucker with a rustic sensibility. And nearly nine years later, Beam hasn’t shaken the soothing and warm sound that he offered up on his outstanding debut, he’s merely dressed it up in very different arrangements. In fact, the number of Iron & Wine releases bearing full band recordings and more elaborate arrangements now outnumber those merely containing Beam and his steel string companion. His progression has been gradual, Beam first collaborating with Calexico in 2005 and adding a few more layers on the Woman King EP before ultimately issuing his first full album of percussion and electric-instrument heavy compositions, 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog. Yet, throughout this progression, Beam stayed true to his Southern-inflected indie folk style, keeping his beard long and his songs warm and gorgeous.
Iron & Wine’s fourth album and first for Warner Bros., Kiss Each Other Clean is another great leap forward for Beam and his many collaborators. Deepening the layers established on The Shepherd’s Dog while exploring new styles and textures, Kiss Each Other Clean is a huge-sounding record, the kind of elaborate, yet loose and natural sounding studio production rarely heard since the ’70s. At various times recalling the likes of Paul Simon, Fleetwood Mac or Stevie Wonder, the album is positively luxurious. It should be draped in a smoking jacket and clutching a snifter of brandy. And despite having made a journey from much humbler and simpler beginnings, Beam sounds quite at home surrounded by pianos, horns and strings.
The subtle opening of “Walking Far From Home” eases the listener into Iron and Wine’s rich sonic world, with Beam’s soft pipes backed by organ and some sweetly soothing backing vocals. Yet it’s clear from the get-go just how much more elaborate the production is. Though a fairly simple four-chord melody, “Walking” piles on one instrument after another, with piano, organ, drums, bass and backing vocals all converging as part of a delicate but intricately constructed piece of audio architecture. Similarly, “Tree By the River” could have very easily been a great song in the style of Beam’s first two albums. Yet rather than stick to a finger-picked folk sound, here, Iron and Wine sounds much more like Wilco, combining country grit with ’70s AM pop to subtle yet gorgeous effect.
More so than on any prior Iron and Wine albums, there is a more playful and experimental feel on Kiss Each Other Clean, though all done for the express purpose of adding a little extra character to some already strong songs. “Me and Lazarus” is the first taste of Beam’s newfound funk, with Rhodes and saxophone lending some grooves behind his black-and-blue narration. Dub effects permeate the atmospheric “Monkeys Uptown,” as does Beam’s curious refrain, “those monkeys uptown, they told you not to fuck around.” The outstanding “Rabbit Will Run” combines wah-wah guitar scratches, thumb piano and flute, while the epic and funky closing track “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me” is a breathing and throbbing mass of horns and bass. It’s easily the sexiest song in Iron and Wine’s catalog.
As should be expected from a major label debut, Kiss Each Other Clean is the most expensive-sounding of Iron and Wine’s albums. In other words: it sounds amazing. Its loose, funky feel gives the listener the impression that the album was most likely a lot of fun to make, but this is by no means a meandering jam session. Beam and his large cast of musicians have crafted a tightly executed, yet organic sounding record that marks another successful progression for the songwriter. His songs are still as beautiful and affecting as ever, just sharpened, styled and dressed to the nines.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.