Iron & Wine, the largely one-man act by singer/songwriter Sam Beam, has always been somewhat polarizing. Either you are absolutely under Beam’s spell or you are not exactly into the music’s usually low-fi tempo.
With his newest effort, “Kiss Each Other Clean,” Beam aims for what he called in an interview with Spin Magazine, “a focused pop record. It sounds like… that early-to-mid-’70s FM, radio-friendly music.”
Largely, Beam succeeds in doing that, but not without painfully cutting some of the ties to what made his past work so special.
Ever since the act’s debut, Iron & Wine’s low-key brand of folk music has always been associated with a certain kind of intimacy, which most bands that incorporate an acoustic guitar try to achieve but often fail at expressing.
Beam’s breathy, whisper-like vocals make you feel like he’s singing an inch away from your ear. His songs have a sensuous quality that is precious and rare – you can feel the songs on your skin and smell them in the air.
On “Kiss Each Other Clean,” this intimate sensuality is traded in for outright sexuality. Beam no longer sings in a whisper and instead heavily inflects while swooning out the album’s 10 soulfully poppy tracks.
Every song is self-contained, unlike every other Iron & Wine release in which every track flowed together like a cool, Louisiana breeze. This isn’t to say that the album itself doesn’t flow – it’s never jarring, everything is tied together neatly and every song sounds like it’s in the right place.
This new ebb and flow from Beam may be like a first cousin to the other three albums, but “Kiss Each Other Clean” is still pure Iron & Wine.
“Big Burned Hand,” “Me and Lazarus” and “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me” are three tracks that explode into Motown-worthy melodies with horn and jazz flute compositions straight off of Bourbon Street – a stark contrast to almost strictly acoustic instrumentation of the past. You can almost see Beam’s pelvis moving along to the shockingly tawdry lyrics that can’t be printed here.
Lyrically, tracks like “Walking Far from Home” and “Tree by the River” are classic Iron & Wine staples put through a Cat Stevens filter. This new combination shines for the most part, but the novelty can wear thin at times.
The album’s new twist on the usual living room, Southern Gothic sensibilities of the act is an interesting and exciting new direction, but it doesn’t have longevity. Despite Beam moving away from the quiet and dependable strength of his past efforts, “Kiss Each Other Clean” still makes for an excellent album.
It’s refreshing to see Beam not afraid to experiment. If this is a sign of things to come, it’s safe to assume that Iron & Wine will smooth out some of this album’s inconsistencies and create a new beast with a deeper bite next time.