Iron & Wine: “Kiss Each Other Clean”

I kid you not: Yacht rock is making a comeback in 2011, and the indie rock set is leading the charge. Iron & Wine is first out of the gate with a big comeback album– some four years in the making now– and I swear there are moments that make me feel like I’m listening to the mournfully melodic song stylings of one Christopher Cross. Other names that the music brings to mind: Fleetwood Mac. Steely Dan. Sting at his poppiest. And perhaps no one more than the young Paul Simon– not the one who’s Still Crazy or Rhymin’ but the one who brings horns and marimbas to bear on songs that otherwise aim straight for the pop charts (as they may have appeared in the late 70s, early 80s).

It’s all pretty beguiling: Once upon a time, this man recorded acoustic songs all by himself, in a basement or a bedroom, and never allowed the music to rise above a soft hum. Now his albums are drenched in squawking horns and doo-wop harmonies. The first song on the record is drenched in echo and feedback, almost a perverse antithesis to the just-a-whisper aesthetic of his roots. But, for one thing, we should have seen it coming: Kiss Each Other Clean isn’t exactly a sequel to The Shepherd’s Dog, but it does continue that album’s trend toward a more expansive sonic palette, and a list of influences that doesn’t always make the most sense. And for another thing, Sam Beam warned us well in advance: The pre-release chatter about this album was full of references to the feel-good sounds of 70s radio staples, and, to that end, it delivers exactly what it promised.

And on that level alone, it’s a welcome turn away from some of the noisier or more experimental flavors on The Shepherd’s Dog. The most appealing thing about that particular record was how it played with different sonic textures, but its junkyard mayhem was ultimately a distraction: Sam Beam is, first and foremost, a great songwriter, and that album seemed to do everything it could to obscure the austere truth of its songs. Kiss Each Other is sleeker, cleaner, busy but not really noisy. You can actually make out the words and the melodies, and for the most part they’re really fine. It isn’t a return to Beam’s roots, but it is a return, to some degree, to his greatest gifts. And it is a warm record– relative to The Shepherd’s Dog, anyway. He has chosen his influences and his sonic palette deliberately to invoke sounds that are welcoming, music that makes one feel good.

But I am still not quite won over. For all its good intentions about being a record that welcomes listeners to spend time with it, it still sounds rather alien to me. I am not opposed to the Iron & Wine sound expanding outward– I write this as a fan whose favorite recording isn’t The Creek Drank the Cradle but the wonderfully lush Woman King EP– but the direction of that expansion is, to my ears, a little nonsensical. At times it feels purely like an affectation, particularly when lazy sonic markings such as DJ scratching make broad references to a particular era, or when the production takes on a deliberately dated tone, what with its retro synths, muted horns, and sometimes reverb-heavy bass. There is a song here called “Monkeys Uptown” that feels for all the world like it could have been a post-prog Genesis number, perhaps, or even a solo hit for Phil Collins in the early 80s; it’s paired with an uncharacteristically lazy lyric that takes broad shots at The Establishment and doesn’t skimp on the vulgarity. The odd pairing of music and words might be a stab at irony, I suppose, but it is mostly a bore regardless.

I do suspect that there will be those who think Beam is enjoying his Dylan-at-Newport moment, and I’m the philistine who’s calling him out as a Judas, so let me hasten to add that I think there are some wonderful moments on this record, moments where the production actually works in tandem with the songwriting. I dig the doo-wop harmonies on “Half Moon,” for instance; one can imagine it working well as a sort of classic I&W folk tune, but here it works just fine as something a tad closer to pure pop. And the album opener, “Walking Far from Home,” is just brilliant, a sort of existential travelogue that plays like a cinematic pop anthem, the synths and echoes actually enhancing rather than distracting.

But my feeling, for the most part, is that Sam Beam’s songs don’t need so many bells and whistles to take root, and on thee tracks his natural gifts as a folk singer are overshadowed by his slightly-less-natural abilities as a pop singer. It’s just sort of senseless, this album, not because he’s moving his art forward, but because he seems almost to have forgotten where he started.

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