Kiss Each Other Clean – Iron and Wine’s Hard Rain
A review by Doug Heselgrave
I just read that during a recent performance at Radio City Music Hall a member of the audience got up from his seat and yelled “Judas” at Sam Beam when he attempted to share some of his challenging new material with the audience. Total lack of originality and taste aside, it certainly didn’t have the desired effect. I’m sure that the irony was unintentional considering the lyrics on most of the songs on “Kiss Each Other Clean” recall nothing as much as the surrealism of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs from the mid-nineteen sixties.
I don’t know who the heckler thought Iron and Wine were or if he had any insight at all into how Sam Beam’s music has evolved. Perhaps the person in question had only listened to the ‘Twilight’ soundtrack or had only gotten on the bus during one of Sam Beam’s solo Iron and Wine tours. Regrettably for him, the kind of music he was looking for hasn’t been part of Beam’s recorded oeuvre since 2004’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” CD.
The charming lo-fi that marked Iron and Wine’s first three recordings hasn’t really been in evidence anywhere since Beam’s collaboration with Calexico ripped his band’s sonic palette wide open. By the time ‘Shepherd’s Dog’ was released in 2007 – songs like ‘Resurrection Fern’ aside – listeners were forced to catch up with Beam’s increasingly edgy and full blown musical vision. No more solo acoustic ditties or gently supported songs about ‘Forgotten Afternoons’ – ‘Shepherd’s Dog’ was a glorious and thrilling ride through a Hieronymous Bosch world of squeaks, moans, rattling percussions and dub echoes supported by lyrics that painted the sky orange and purple while invoking oceans to tilt and mountains to fall.
Those who hoped that ‘Shepherd’s Dog’ was a one off experiment had their hopes dashed by the full spectrum re-imagining of Bob Dylan’s ‘Dark Eyes’ from the “I’m not There’ soundtrack. A brief reprieve came as Sam Beam – for reasons that he admitted were more financial than artistic – spent a few years touring ‘Iron and Wine’ as a solo act at folk festivals around the world, but the songs on ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ confirm that he has been hearing and composing new music that continues to adhere to a full symphonic dimension of sounds and effects.
‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is a fierce, full, thick and intense album. This time out, there is little for the willowy acoustic crowd to hold onto -– though Beam tosses a few bones with the angelic chorus and trilling steel string guitar that shifts through the delightful ‘Tree by the River.’ But, these moments of calm are few and far between. From the opening ‘Walking Far from Home’ with its Dylanesque vision of a Hard Rain apocalypse, Beam evokes a Pilgrim’s Progress for the twenty first century. The lyrics evoke people sleeping in abandoned cars on ruined highways and wayward souls who intone cracked lip prayers of regret and loss. Everywhere through Beam’s cryptic reports we encounter lost loves and twirling circles of disappointment channelled through distorted vocals and troubling electric guitar melodies.
This is music best heard on headphones at a high volume. With electronic effects that jostle outgrown acoustic hopes, funky punctuated horns and healthy doses of Dub styled reverb interrupting feedback that suggest thunder and lightning overhead, Beam will probably lose as many fans as he gains with ‘Kiss Each Other Clean.’ This would be a shame because Beam is quickly emerging as one of this century’s most important artists working in a pop idiom. Those angry at him for turning away from becoming as this generation’s James Taylor or CSN should take solace that he’s decided to become something greater – and much rarer.
With ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ Beam has solidly placed his feet on the twin shores of literary songcraft and experimental music to distinguish himself in both areas. Some artists like The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa or Pink Floyd created new worlds of sound, but the lyrics of their songs often left me wanting more; other artists like John Prine or Leonard Cohen have crafted some of the best lyrics we’ve ever heard only to decorate them with pedestrian musical ideas. Beam sounds as if he’s determined to create songs in which the lyrics and the music that accompanies them are of a similar sterling quality.
‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is a thrilling ride from beginning to end, and represents Iron and Wine’s greatest artistic statement to date. One only hopes that Beam can keep it together on this wild ride and adhere to the commitment of honouring the fierce visions he sees and hears in his head. Now if only the fans he attracted with the Twilight soundtrack would get a little backbone and dive in and embrace the chaos, then they’d finally have a pop star worthy of the adulation. “Kiss Each Other Clean’ surpasses all expectations.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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