The musical evolution of Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine is analogous to that of its album artwork, from the wheat and red clay scheme of the 4-track debut The Creek Drank the Cradle to the more colorful yet still gentle leafy greens of Our Endless Numbered Days. Now with The Shepherd’s Dog come vibrant, arresting tones, both in the music and the wild-eyed dog on the cover. Produced once again by Brian Deck, and following a handful of EPs, The Shepherd’s Dog is the most successful merger yet of Beam’s meticulously constructed songs with adventurous arrangements that move further and enthusiastically away from the band’s pious beginnings. Dressed up in West African rhythms, Cajun accordion, or jaunty barroom piano, songs like “The Devil Never Sleeps” and “House by the Sea” sparkle with energy and invention, busier than anything Iron & Wine has yet attempted, but never weighed down by its ambitions.
Despite their fancy new clothes, the basic structures of Beam’s songs are unchanged, their author still drawing from his seemingly bottomless well of home demo-ed recordings. Only the sad-eyed “Carousel” is a recent composition, a woozy yet poignant witness to the dissolution of the American dream filled with allusions to crackheads, Noah, and snow-eating dogs. But even that track contains all the hallmarks of Beam’s songwriting: clusters of memorable imagery laid down in perfect rhythm to repetitive, mantra-like melodies. The only question is whether or not you can get with brushed cymbals or the processed and filtered buzz of Beam’s voice. If you can’t, the mouth-harp twanging and intricate percussion of “House by the Sea” is sure to get under your skin even more, though the lilting, whisper-crooned melodies and evocative wordplay (“The scent of roses and raspberry leaves”, “Like the shape of a wave / The jealous sisters will sing on my grave”) have lost none of their potency with the expanded instrumental palette. Likely, these songs could have been spun out with the same sepia-toned humility as “Promising Light” and “Jesus the Mexican Boy”, but there would be no growth, nothing to explore, no fun.
On the contrary, the twittering Califone-like junkyard funk of “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)”, and the bluesy, noir crawl of “Peace Beneath the City” are as much about play as solemnity, wrapping haunting lines like “The white girls wander the strip mall / Singing all day / ‘Give me a juggernaut heart / And a Japanese car / And someone to free” in layers of texture that don’t reveal themselves fully after one or 50 listens. But for those who still prefer a good old back porch lullaby, “Resurrection Fern” is full of hammer-ons, pedal steel, and nostalgia about “pitching glass at cornfield crows”. The closing, ‘50s pop-flavored waltz “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” is similarly understated in comparison to the rest of the album. Crystalline piano fills sweep through the album’s final moments, trading time with coos and sighs, the song simultaneously one of courtship and mourning. Beam’s lyrics again match Biblical language with cryptic denouncements of popular American culture (“Poison rats… pissing on magazine photos / Those fishing lures thrown in the cold and clean blood of Christ”), not the direct political tirade that may have been predicted by some pre-release interviews, but a heartbroken commentary more dream-like and labyrinthine, and ultimately more true to their time.
There’s disconnect between the characters inhabiting these songs, their daily concerns, and those of the world outside their borders. In “The Devil Never Sleeps”, Beam sings “Everybody bitching ‘There’s nothing on the radio”, a pack of friends wandering around the streets of their town. But the protagonist is also “dreaming again of a city full of fathers in their army clothes”, and admits “Someone bet a dollar that my daddy wasn’t coming home.” The war in Iraq looms in the distance on much of The Shepherd’s Dog, the key word being distance. War is a phantom, an unreality even though there is real impact and consequence. The sun-kissed, angelic “Innocent Bones” hides its pointed observations in clucking banjo, washboard, and rippling piano, “The cartoon king has a tattoo of a bleeding heart / There ain’t a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab / But they all want the scar.” Beam’s found his own way of beating around the Bush, of trying to understand the world as it exists now and in history. And as much for the beautiful distractions conjured by the musicians, the richness and creativity, bells and whistles, The Shepherd’s Dog should one day be regarded for how it reflected its time, timelessly.