Iron and Wine - "Walking Far From Home" (Kiss Each Other Clean)
There is a simple way of explaining Sam Beam’s career – let’s call it, in a nod to the Whig theory of history, “the Whig theory of Iron and Wine” – as a steady progression both in terms of his influences (starting with the Harry Smith anthologies and working forward) and in terms of his recording process (solo home recording to a large backing band and processed vocals). Of course, his career is not quite so simple – The Creek Drank the Cradle and The Sea and the Rhythm owed at least as much to Will Oldham as the Carter Family – but as a framing device this at least sets the stage for his major label debut, Kiss Each Other Clean. Beam told Spin last year that he was making “more of a focused pop record,” resembling early- to mid-’70s radio-friendly albums. That is certainly consistent with his last album, The Shepherd’s Dog, which also had its fair share of AOR-inspired moments. Kiss Each Other Clean is definitely Beam’s most slick album, and it boasts a raft of guest stars, including Doveman’s Thomas Bartlett and Antibalas’ Stuart Bogie. Whether it’s a creative progression, however, is a tougher call.
This is not a complete reboot or change in direction. At least one song on Kiss Each Other Clean, “Tree by the River,” has been part of Beam’s live sets for years; instead of a spare folk arrangement, it now has the Fleetwood Mac treatment – mid-tempo beat, soaring back-up vocals, and noticeable breaks before and after the chorus. “Walking Far From Home,” the leadoff track and obvious first single, also has the characteristic Iron and Wine vocal rhythms and lyrics. In fact, it might just be the apotheosis of Beam’s lyrical style – it’s a dreamy travelogue, one that allows him to rattle off a number of images consecutively: “sinners making music,”“a boatful of believers saying I was talking too loud,”“a bird falls like a hammer from the sky,”“blood, and a bit of it was mine” and, of course, “a millionaire pissing on the lawn.” It does not seem to have a fixed meaning, but it’s certainly evocative, and there’s an impressive economy to the language.
Beam also continues to liberally employ religious imagery, most obviously on “Me and Lazarus,” which is a short picaresque involving one or the other of the New Testament figures. (As Beam recently told NPR, he often uses biblical names for his protagonists as a shorthand for various characteristics or backstories.) That story floats over a bouncing bass line and a series of saxophone breaks that is probably the biggest musical departure on the album. “Monkeys Uptown,” which showcases a series of synthesizer effects, and the horn section on “Big Burned Head,” an homage to the R&B from ‘70s AM radio, are in the running as well.
If it’s hard to really engage with Kiss Each Other Clean, it’s because there’s a kind of stateliness to Iron and Wine’s music that doesn’t really fit with a pop record – what’s meant to be a blend of various influences can come across as a self-conscious balancing of disparate elements, and what’s meant to be straightforward and enjoyable can instead come across as inoffensive. (This is probably the same reason that Iron and Wine’s most successful “full band” album is In the Reins, a collaboration with Calexico – there’s a confidence to Calexico’s arrangements that works well with the songwriting style of Iron and Wine.) Credit to Beam, of course, for challenging himself rather than continuing to remake The Creek Drank the Cradle over and over again, but Kiss Each Other Clean is unlikely to count among his best work.