I am currently on my umpteenth listen-through of Iron & Wine’s new release, Kiss Each Other Clean, and I can comfortably, happily, and with great confidence declare it absolutely gorgeous. Sam Beam keeps stretching in amazing directions, and the result is a sound that’s just as good naked as clothed — that is, it’s just as good hearing him alone as it is hearing the lush, R&B-flavored arrangements on the album as a whole.
This is, as far as I’m concerned, a rare and precious gift — it’s not often that a song, in my experience, works really, really well that way. Usually, I find myself more strongly attracted to one form of it or another. I wish for more or less, or I wish for the kind of pure and messy energy of a live performance instead of the crystalline order of a well-mastered recording. One of the things I’ve always liked best about Iron & Wine, in fact, is Beam’s fairly spare, direct, live(ish) sound. He creates an intimate sort of music, both far-reaching and intensely personal at the same time (which is exactly the kind of sound I most love to hear and to make). This is what makes him different from any number of other performers I enjoy who are terrific on their own/live, but tend to let production toys get in the way when they record. Sometimes I want to take Duncan Sheik’s string section from him and hide it somewhere faaaaaar away, for example, because it’s so damned intrusive that it cheeses up some of his otherwise really interesting tunes and dulls them to a sort of pop-tinged sameness that doesn’t do him justice as a songwriter.
There’s no such difficulty on Kiss Each Other Clean. From the sparse, elegant, increasingly powerful “Walking Far From Home” to my personal favorite, the incongruous fusion of smooth jazz, edginess and old-school grim balladeering that is “Rabbit Will Run,” there’s not an overdone arrangement to be had. The one that really makes the magic of what Beam has done clearest, though, is “Tree By The River”. The first time I really listened to it was when he played it for that NPR Tiny Desk Concert, just one guy with a guitar (it starts at about 8:43). It’s sweet and nostalgic and devastating all at once, and it really works as a plain old acoustic song sung by one guy — classic folky gold. I loved it the minute I heard it. The album cut, however, is equally effective and completely different. It’s suddenly an R&B-flavored pop song that wouldn’t sound too terribly out of place in the late 70s-early 80s, and it is no less sweet (and there’s a sort of subtle, darker undertone still, even in the upbeat rhythm of the thing).
It’s also worth saying that Kiss Each Other Clean is one of those albums that really deserves to be listened to in order (although it does not suffer for shuffling). Beam’s done a terrific job of mixing fresh arrangements in various styles, and the order really does let this clever feature of his work shine its brightest.
Also worth your while: Iron & Wine’s Daytrotter Session video.