[26 January 2011]
There’s nothing remarkable about embracing the commercial sophistication of soft rock in a cultural landscape littered with the transitory treasures of mom’s attic. That brand of rummage sale nostalgia is the stated goal of Samuel Beam, better known as Iron & Wine, on his first album for the brothers Warner, Kiss Each Other Clean. He told Spin that it “sounds like the music people heard in their parent’s car growing up… that early-to-mid-‘70s FM, radio-friendly music”. Although Beam poses this as a significant shift, channeling a second-hand past has always been Iron & Wine’s raison d’être. But whereas his first three albums, recorded for Sub Pop, invoked a hazily imagined American pastoral from the implied perspective of urban yearning, Kiss Each Other Clean invokes instead the James Taylors and Van Morrisons of the world—that is, the pop personas doing roughly the same thing 30-odd years ago.
This is, in other words, a pop record. The young crowd who found poignancy in his intimate Stereopak yarns, myself included, might balk at such a development. I certainly hesitated at Beam’s tinny, clean, amplified vocal lead on opener “Walking Far From Home”, but only because Julian Casablancas wasn’t the first comparison I was prepared to make to Beam. The move to singles, meanwhile, isn’t something I can fault him for. The singles game is a tough game to play—maybe the toughest—because it’s largely a numbers game: the strength of a record becomes a merciless ratio of good tracks to tracks overall. That must have been daunting for a man whose weaker songs could once be carried along by moody coherence, even on the relatively brawny and brassy The Shepherd’s Dog. No wonder he hedges the odds and sticks with ten songs on this one.
Unfortunately, even just those ten are pretty hit-or-miss. Two of them are unqualified triumphs. Two more are not at all. The six that remain waver between listenable and good enough, the kind that you might warm up to with familiarity but won’t be adding to your shuffle anytime soon.
First, the triumphs. There’s “Glad Man Singing”, which struts forth on tapped bongos and a strummed guitar like a long-lost Cat Stevens hit, which should be more than enough to tell you how it sounds and why it’s great, unless you don’t care for Cat Stevens, in which case there’s simply no hope for you. And then there’s the even better “Tree by the River” earlier on, the album’s first single. There hasn’t been as infectious and assured a twee-pop tune as this one in a very long time—not even from Belle & Sebastian, and certainly not from She & Him. Hatching up a catchy Motown melody is a tightrope act as it is, but travelling the well-trodden trails of long-lost young love without an iota of insincerity is enough to breach the defenses of anyone who can recall being “strangers to change” with “a potty-mouthed girl”. Myself very much included.
Second, the duds. Like their stellar counterparts, they offer up genre courses, only the pickings are slimmer, since the genres in question are folk-prog and jam band. Not that these can’t be done well; the Decemberists have made a respectable oeuvre of the former, and festival stalwarts like Phish and Hot Buttered Rum keep the latter relevant in the 21st century—or so I am told, by friends who have the patience for it. But listen to “Rabbit Will Run”—the prog one—at any volume quieter than loud, and you’d be forgiven for wondering if it has any tune at all. “Big Burned Hand”, meanwhile, is dead on arrival, unmoved even by the malapropian image of “the lion and the lamb… fucking in the back room”.
Then there are those other six, which in some cases are one small move away from greatness, and in others, are never destined for such a future. Not insignificantly, among these are the songs that sound closest to the Iron & Wine of The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days, particularly “Monkeys Uptown” and “Half Moon”; their modesty in light of dynamite like “Tree by the River” underscores just how aesthetically dependent on album context Iron & Wine’s earlier songs may have been.
But even when these middling songs themselves depart from Beam’s prior sound, they still bear the markers of his brand. He still sounds like Tracy Chapman, except for when he sounds like Ian Anderson, and either way he steers well clear of excitability as much as he can help it, keeping his feet planted firmly in the collegiate lyrical universe of wounded foot soldiers and elemental metaphors. By consequence, most of Kiss Each Other Clean lacks a certain audacity that might bring it closer to its “radio-friendly” ambitions. The sundry sonic adornments Beam can now afford don’t do much to change that because they’re just adornments. Once the lilting harps of “Godless Brother in Love” lose their novelty, for example, the song becomes little more than simply pretty. In other cases, as in “Rabbit Will Run” with its ill-advised jazz flute flourishes, those adornments only cause more damage. But, I will concede one thing: the Beach-Boys-like backing harmonies throughout are most definitely a plus.
Something that others have repeatedly assured me of—since I never had the chance to see for myself—is Iron & Wine’s fortitude in concert. Perhaps that’s the venue where these songs will shine, so to speak. They’re good enough, for the most part, to have that potential. But if you’re looking for a full band Iron & Wine on record, you’re better off with The Shepherd’s Dog, or better yet, Beam’s near-miraculous collaboration with Calexico In the Reins. If you’re looking for great Iron & Wine singles, though, you might be out of luck. Kiss Each Other Clean might have a sexy title, but it’s just a little too effete to be the great pop record that it really should be.