Sam Beam’s project Iron & Wine is constantly evolving. From a mild mannered whispery folk singer/songwriter on “Our Endless Numbered Days,” to the more harmonically and melodically dense “Shepherd’s Dog,” Beam’s explorations constantly lead him to new personal musical vanguards. It’s actually quite fascinating to observe the natural progression of his music; he doesn’t remake the same album over and over again.
On Iron & Wine’s latest release, “Kiss Each Other Clean,” Beam’s evolution is even more pronounced. Hear we have influences of folk rock, psychedelic music and even a little bit of Motown. Imagine tuning a radio in the 1960s—then you’d have an accurate sampling of all the stuff that’s happening on “Clean.” Dozens of instruments pepper the tunes throughout. The saxophone on the album’s second track, “Me and Lazarus,” seems to come almost out of nowhere, but it gives the song a funky edge. Vibraphones, too, are present on almost every track, adding a ringing, spacious color to the album.
Overall, “Clean” is quite a pleasant listening experience. The vocal harmony arrangements are hauntingly beautiful, particularly on “Godless Brother in Love.” Sparse guitar and piano give the song shape, setting up a melody that could practically be a Carpenters’ song. But where the tune really shines is during the very intricate chorus of “mmm’s” and “ooo’s” (technical terms) evocative of Fleet Foxes. It would seem overwhelming if it weren’t for Beam’s voice, which is stark enough to make the song completely organic. He’s never fighting the “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young” harmonies; they exist only to compliment some pretty rich melodies.
In addition to pushing the envelope vocally, Beam also goes to great lengths experimenting with different electronic soundscapes. On “Me and Lazarus,” the reason the saxophone seems to pop up out of nowhere might be because it is preceded by some synthetic pad warbling. It’s an odd juxtaposition that happens again and again on “Clean.” At times, it’s pretty effective like on the meticulously orchestrated “Rabbit Will Run,” a tribal sounding tune with distorted guitars and pan flutes. Similarly, Beam’s voice is often effected, typically with a flanger, creating a sort of dripping quality, which feeds some songs’ psychedelic nature.
However, the album suffers at some points from overproduction. “Monkeys Uptown” gets pretty bogged down with cheesy effects that distract the listener from the song at hand. There’s just so much going on at once on “Clean,” that the record is in constant flux between really catchy, singable numbers and finely-tuned techno-babble. Granted, it’s a minor complaint to say there’s too much going on. Most artists can’t even get one interesting musical idea in a song. At times, Beam has two or three brilliant riffs or melodic ideas occurring simultaneously.
Still, a lot of layered musical dynamics fit the album quite well. “Glad Man Singing,” for example, is only two chords throughout the entire song. It works surprisingly well, mostly because of a mean hook and carefully placed piano and instrumental fills. But with so much happening on so many other tunes, “Clean” doesn’t sound as cohesive as Beam’s previous efforts. He’s a master of musical space and minimalism, which are rarely explored here. Perhaps it’s wrong to yearn for a little bit of that classic folksy guitar wonderment that made women view men with beards as artistic and charming as opposed to creepy weirdos. Either way, it’s quite admirable that Beam is trying something new. It just doesn’t work out 100 percent of the time.
As an experimentalist album, “Clean” succeeds more than many in capturing something musically unique. There are a lot of truly phenomenal tracks on “Clean,” ones that can be returned to time and time again–the only problem being that at times, they don’t gel together. All told, “Kiss Each Other Clean” is a strong effort that makes me even more excited for what Iron & Wine and his magnificent beard have in store for us yet.