There’s a very good friend of mine who lives about 3,000 miles away, tucked away in the Mid-Atlantic region of the east coast, who I speak to about once a year. The incredible thing is, he’s changed somehow with every phone call. A year is a long time to go without talking to someone, so it doesn’t surprise me that a lot could have occurred. For instance, he used to drink like a fish, now he’s discovered a modicum of moderation. He used to smoke two packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day. He has since quit smoking. He used to live in a cramped attic apartment, rarely dated, shunned most everything technological and worked as a film projectionist. Now, he owns a house, is married with a child, and works for a national banking conglomerate as a computer trainer! Yet, the more things change…well you know the rest. Every time we speak, it’s as if no time at all has passed. We pick up conversations right where they left off, tell the same jokes, and are able to pick up a strong and rewarding friendship from where we last hung up the phone. This is what I am reminded of upon listening to Iron & Wine’s latest, and amazingly only third, proper full-length album, The Shepherd’s Dog.
2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle was a breath of fresh air in the indie music scene, consisting of hushed home recordings that were barely changed from the home demo tapes Sam Beam sent to Sub Pop, if they were even changed at all. 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days found Beam in a real studio, crisper and more polished than we had ever heard him before. Now, three years later and with a few EP’s, a collaboration with Calexico and four daughters, we are privileged to hear The Shepherd’s Dog. On this album, as with my friend’s life, so much has changed. There are a lot more instruments to speak of, various textures and sounds that, while not seeming out of place, are somewhat foreign to the ears of the fans of Iron & Wine. But these sounds are nowhere near unwelcome. My initial fears of `a fuller sound’ were allayed by the tribal rhythmic beauty of Boy With a Coin, and The Shepherd’s Dog not only confirms those feelings, but has me rejoicing at its arrival.
While the sounds may have changed, what has remained the same are both the sweetly hushed voice of Beam and his incredibly gifted knack for lyrics. “The Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” lets you know exactly what is to come with the reliable words and new musical palate of Iron & Wine. “Love was a promise made of smoke in a frozen copse of trees,” is the first sweetly sung line, as the song continues with the gravitas of strings being undercut by a playful piano track and backwoods porch guitars. An Eastern feel permeates “White Tooth Man” like a later Beatles track, while retaining a resemblance to previous songs like “Free Until They Cut Me Down” or “Teeth in the Grass.” Again, lines like “and the postman cried while reading your mail and we all got trampled in the Christmas parade,” let us recall what we love about Iron & Wine in the first place. The same holds true for “Lovesong of the Buzzard,” with its pastoral imagery and gorgeously laid back atmospheres, which makes it probably the closest thing to a holdover from his last solo album, albeit this time with organs. “Carousel” is certainly a standout track, finding Beam’s voice, I believe, changed by vocal effects for the first time. Beam has stated that this particular album is certainly affected by his astonishment at Bush’s reelection, and “Carousel” touches on some of those subjects, including the war and the hurricane-devastated south.
The intertwining guitars of “House by the Sea” seem both mischievous and of grave consequence, while the absence of percussion is barely noticeable. “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)” is a more frightening cousin to the lighter “Rock On” by David Essex. There’s a sense of danger and foreboding as opposed to whimsy, with the echoing instruments lending a touch of reggae to this standout track. “Resurrection Fern,” a recent live favorite, is another callback to a more familiar style, with Flannery O’Connor / Truman Capote / Harper Lee Southern Gothic imagery, backed by Joey Burns’ (Calexico) twanging steel. Above all, it’s a song that is stripped down to the point of reminding us that Sam Beam’s voice is an instrument unto itself, comforting us like a velour blanket. “Boy With a Coin” is one of my nominees for “Single of the Year,” with rhythmic drums and handclaps and gorgeously bending guitar notes. And again, Beam graces us with incredible imagery as in the opening lines, “A boy with a coin he found in the weeds with bullets and pages of trade magazines / Close to a car that flipped on the turn when God left the ground to circle the world.” “The Devil Never Sleeps” adds buzzsaw guitar and a Jerry Lee Lewis ’50s piano track to enhance another tale of fathers fighting overseas. “Peace Beneath the City” mesmerizes with a chorus that changes slightly with every reading. “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” closes the album in gorgeous fashion, with both sadness and hope, like a pop Gospel tune that seeks the divine in the ordinary and oppressive.
I should know by know that Sam Beam is never going to disappoint me, much like the friend that I only talk to once a year. I’ve been waiting for this album for three years, only appeased by a handful of intermittent EP’s and an interesting, if not completely satisfying split album with Calexico. The Shepherd’s Dog more than satisfies my craving for something new from Iron & Wine, it surpasses expectations, which were heightened by a long absence and lowered by the promise of a `more rock’ sound. Not only does it exceed expectation and quell any fear, it is easily one of the best albums of the year. Although the instrumentation may have changed, giving Iron & Wine a fuller, richer soundscape to work with, there is nothing that could drastically alter the foundations of Beam’s songcraft, and that’s what brings us back time and again.
MP3: “Innocent Bones”