Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Iron & Wine - Ghost on Ghost

4AD, 2013

Right from the moment his lo-fi debut crackled through the speakers, it was clear that Sam Beam was an artist to watch. The mastermind behind modern folk outfit Iron & Wine, Beam had a gift for gorgeous melodies and evocative lyricism that was nearly unparalleled in the musical landscape of the early 2000s. And as his public profile began to gather more attention, his music only got better. A year after the debut (2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle), Beam blessed the world with the album that, I think, still remains his defining moment: Our Endless Numbered Days, a gorgeous, poetic, and blissfully nostalgic album of acoustic campfire tunes. Anyone listening to Beam at the time, to gentle, unforgettable tunes like “Naked as we Came” or “Passing Afternoon,” or especially to the nine-and-a-half minute b-side that was “The Trapeze Swinger,” could tell that he wasn’t just another pretender to the folkie throne. No, Beam had a way with sweet and wistful melodies that made his music sound timeless, and his use of astounding lyrical imagery showed that he not only had what it took to become one of the most skilled songwriters of all time, but that he was probably already among their ranks.

As such, Beam would have been betraying himself and his fans if he had chosen to stand still. Rather than stagnate in the acoustic singer/songwriter vein for too long, he became more ambitious on his third full-length—2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog—outfitting his beautiful songwriting with full-band arrangements, studio sheen, world music influences, and fuller sonic textures than ever before, and the results were surprisingly stellar. On that particular record, Beam was somehow able to maintain the intimacy of his songwriting style while simultaneously giving it new perspective and punch, and his reward was the most well-received album he had ever made. Encouraged by the strong critical reception, Beam used The Shepherd's Dog as a launching pad for a complete musical metamorphosis, but looking back, he seems to have lost his compass somewhere along the way.

To be fair, 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean did continue the evolution of its predecessor, but where the fuller sound of Shepherd’s Dog felt like a natural step forward, Kiss was overindulgent and inconsistent. Impossibly great stand-outs like “Walking Far From Home” and “Godless Brother in Love” still made the record a worthwhile journey, and hearing Beam adopt elements of jazz, funk, and ‘70s FM pop was hardly unwelcome, but the record’s mixed-up, directionless flow, as well as the presence of a few legitimately poor songs, had myself and many other fans questioning the songwriter’s creative direction. The Iron & Wine concert I went to at the time did nothing to assuage my doubts, either: Beam and his band transformed his songs, new and old, into extensive and meandering improv pieces, and while the musicianship on display was never less than terrific, the jam band I was watching onstage was neither the artist I had come to see, nor the one I had fallen in love with.

Ghost on Ghost, Beam’s fifth full-length outing under the Iron & Wine moniker, is at once both better and worse than its predecessor. On one hand, the album feels considerably more cohesive, both in sound and sequencing, than Kiss ever did. On the other, the number of immediate stand-out tracks—for me at least—has dropped to zero. And perhaps that’s by design, since the more beloved Iron & Wine songs have always seemed to be the acoustic ballads—stuff like “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” and “Resurrection Fern” from Shepherd’s Dog, or “Upward Over the Mountain from Creek—of which this album has none. Instead, Beam wanders further from his roots than ever before, building a dizzying array of ‘70s radio pop, Motown soul, ‘50s doo-wop, and throwback jazz club intensity, with fringes of Americana folk and western country music thrown into the mix as reference points.

Make no mistake, there’s a lot to take in here, and with so much to hear and admire, it’s not really fair to compare these songs to the guy Sam Beam used to be. As a standalone, I bet most of us would be praising Ghost on Ghost, both for how fresh it sounds in the modern musical context and for how reverent and referential it is to a wider historical tapestry. Lively opener “Caught in the Briars” melds a booming bass-line, bursts of brass, and twinkling glockenspiel with the kind of warm vocal harmonies and acoustic riffs that could have fit on any of the last three Iron & Wine albums, while the seductive “Desert Babbler” is a neo-soul slowdance with memory-laden pedal steel accents. The resplendent “Joy” is almost as impressive, a dreamy, reverb-laced latticework of vocal harmony, piano, and acoustic guitar that wouldn’t be out of place next to “Blue Moon” on a “Summer Nights” playlist. Later, the chaotic, jazzed-up first single—“Lovers’ Revolution”—shows off the same kind of furious crescendo that Beam used to close an album last time around. And the actual closer, the piano-led beauty that is “Baby Center Stage,” continues Beam’s tradition for terrific finales, leaving listeners awash in flowing falsetto and climactic keyboard chords as the final seconds of the record tick by.

But the problem with Ghost on Ghost is that many of those seconds seem to pass with little fanfare. Kiss, for all its disjointed flow, was hard to forget after even a few listens. It was equal parts adventurous and traditional, and the balance between different sounds—the electronic flourishes of “Walking Far From Home” and the radiant piano of “Godless Brother,” for example, or the big band feel “Big Burned Hand” and the disorienting structure of “Fake Name”—kept listeners on their toes. Ghost on Ghost is the smooth jazz, NPR-ready version of Iron & Wine, and while that kind of sound allows for a lot of really lovely moments, it also means that the album as a whole kind of drags and blends together. If you get lost somewhere in the mid-section, amongst the mid-tempo grooves, the two to three-and-a-half minute song lengths, and the cryptic titles (could songs with names like “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” or “Singers and the Endless Song” be written by anyone but Sam Beam?), you’re probably not alone. And even when the album delivers a great moment—like the Fleetwood Mac-esque “New Mexico’s New Breeze”—the magic from the old days is mostly gone.

Back when Sam Beam was first gaining popularity, listeners flocked to his music because his delicate vocal delivery and his transcendent way with words made him unique. Those early songs were raw, real, and exposed, and Beam had this wonderful ability to sound both wise beyond his years and unspeakably melancholy at the same time. When I hear bits and pieces of the earlier Iron & Wine material—“Some days, her shape in the doorway” from “Fever Dream,” “Autumn blew the quilt right off the perfect bed she made” from “Passing Afternoon,” “That season left the world and then returned, and now you're lit up by the city” from “The Trapeze Swinger”—they still have the power to stop me in my tracks. Maybe it’s simply the beauty of the words, the gentle caress of the acoustic guitar, or the intimate sadness in Beam’s voice as he delivers them, but something about those songs is inescapable. Now, he sings in a more full-bodied baritone, his voice surrounded by layers of harmony, studio sheen, and auxiliary instrumentation, and even though he might still deliver shards of his grand old poetry—couplets like “I only lie when they don’t want the truth/I’m only frightened ‘cause you finally gave me something to lose” caught my ear right away—it never feels as striking or vital as it used to be.

I like this record. I liked Kiss Each Other Clean, too. But for me at least, in drifting slowly away from his folk roots and in shifting his songwriting from sparse acoustic hymns to fully-orchestrated, production-heavy pieces, Beam has lost or obscured many of the qualities that made him special in the first place. In whisper mode, Beam’s voice was the most subtle and devastating instrument in folk music; now, it blooms with new confidence and range and remarkable falsetto coloring, but the subtlety and delicate beauty is lost. Furthermore, by bending his primary focus from the lyrical to the musical aspects of his craft, one of the greatest poets of our time has unwittingly handicapped his greatest gift. I respect the hell out of Beam and the vision he is following here, and I truly adore moments of the result, but for the most part, Ghost on Ghost is a good record that disappoints because we know its creator is capable of something more powerful.

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