[23 April 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Devendra Banhart isn’t the only one who has seemingly suffered a demotion lately. Like Banhart, Sam Beam, who records under the moniker Iron and Wine, recorded and released an album on the Warner Bros. label following a history of working with major indie labels. (In Banhart’s case, his big label debut was 2009’s What Will We Be. In Beam’s case, it was 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean.) However, both artists now find themselves on Nonesuch, an offshoot of Warner Bros., after only delivering one record for the parent company. It’s hard to say why the shuffle has come about, but it may be that not making much of a dent in album sales may have played a role—at least, in the case of Iron and Wine. Kiss Each Other Clean seemingly did respectably on first glance, moving about 125,000 units, which would have been great if Iron and Wine were still a Sub Pop act, but probably not so great for the coffers of Warner Bros. So now Iron and Wine is off playing for the farm team, it seems.
And there may just be another reason why Iron and Wine is on the cusp of being a seemingly minor league major act again: Kiss Each Other Clean didn’t leave much of an impact with some fans. I’ll be honest and candid with you dear reader: when the album came out in January 2011, I bought the album on vinyl, as I do with most Iron and Wine purchases (Beam’s brand of indie-folk sounds much better in analog warmth, if you ask me) and I proceeded to listen to it. Precisely once. And just ... once. After that perfunctory spin, I filed the vinyl disc (white vinyl, if memory serves correct) in amongst my crates of records listed alphabetically in my bedroom, and never bothered to dig it out again. I’m at a loss to say why I haven’t given the record as good a shake as anything in the band’s Sub Pop back catalogue, seeing that, for instance, 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog got a fair workout on my turntable. I suppose the record just didn’t grab me. I’m not sure if it was a matter of my musical tastes suddenly changing or feeling that Iron and Wine had put out something that felt a tad overproduced, but I just no longer felt affected by the music of Sam Beam. I can’t really explain it.
So here we are two years later, and Iron and Wine has a new offering. Ghost on Ghost, the second major supernaturally titled album on Nonesuch by an alternative act after Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, is a bit of a different album for Beam, according to the press release. Said release says that Beam found both The Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean tough records to make, so he took a much more relaxed approach this time out. In fact, in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Beam goes as far to say that he largely doesn’t play any instruments on the record, letting others—particularly multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger, who added string and brass arrangements to the disc—do the heavy lifting. Aside from some six-string guitar, Beam’s role here is largely relegated to being a vocalist. “I literally just sat in the booth and sang for most of the session,” says Beam. “I felt like Sinatra or something; it was hilarious.”
And there definitely is a relaxed vibe to Ghost on Ghost, which adds some jazz-rock fusion touches on a few songs. In fact, some of this sounds remarkably close to ‘70s AM radio rock—the song “Joy” boasts a chord change that feels ripped from 10cc’s ‘70s lite-rock anthem “I’m Not in Love”, for one—and could nestle easily in with easy going albums by the likes of Fleetwood Mac or, dare I say, Bread. That’s not to say that this record sounds like exact replicas of either act, it’s just there’s a slack feel to the proceedings that come across as being peaceful and easy going, exactly the kind of singer-songwriter stuff that could be heard on the dial some 35 or 40 years ago.
This would all be fine and dandy, if Ghost on Ghost was structurally strong in the songwriting department, but it seems like Beam was slacking off a bit when it came to coming up with songs for the record. That’s not to say that there isn’t some good stuff to be had on Ghost on Ghost, but some of its sounds a little too tranquil for its own good. One of the first songs released to the Web to promote the album, “Lovers’ Revolution” sounds a little slippery, as though the song were recorded in a punk-like manner on the first take, and some of the instrumentation sounds a little rushed. And opener “Caught in the Briars” feels too quick at only a smidge more than three minutes long, though it’s quite the ear grabbing folksy strum with saxophone touches. Ender “Baby Center Stage” doesn’t really feel like a final track, either, going on and reaching out over the five-minute mark, before finally petering out and leaving the listener holding an empty bag.
Still, there’s stuff worth digging into on Ghost on Ghost. “Sundown (Back in the Briars)”, which is a pseudo-reprise of “Caught in the Briars”, boasts a memorably menacing line that leaps out and slaps the listener with “She had a way to be kind with words / I had a knife in the back of my car.” And I also think that “Grace for Saints and Ramblers”, another track making the promotional rounds on the Web, has a peppy kick to it, and I’m hard pressed to recall when Beam sounded so profoundly happy as he does on this song. And there’s a thematic underpinning to the record of the ups and downs of relationships, which invites listeners into the record to make out something resembling of a story—Beam comes across as a natural raconteur here more than ever.
It’s just that Ghost on Ghost might come as a slight disappointment to the long-time Iron and Wine fan, because it sounds all so ‘70s-ish. At his best, Beam has sounded remarkably original with just his acoustic guitar and a tape recorder—his take on the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” is arguably better than the original because it strips it right back to the barest essentials. Ghost on Ghost, in comparison, sounds dressy and it so effortless copies a sound of a certain era that Beam might be guilty of rotoscoping a sound or emotion to mine. Still, it’s good to hear Beam taking a breath and taking a bit of time for himself. And Ghost on Ghost is likely more listenable than Kiss Each Other Clean. Besides, it would be churlish to expect an artist to deliver albums that sound exactly the same—we’d be criticizing them for daring to make such a move, anyway. So while Ghost on Ghost is hardly a great leap forward sonically for Beam, it’s a breezy and nonchalant record that might be more transitional in nature. And for any of its faults, I can say one thing with loud affirmation: I’ve now listened to Ghost on Ghost far more times than Kiss Each Other Clean.
While I doubt this is going to get the same workout that The Shepherd’s Dog did, Iron and Wine have at least delivered a record that’s not going to wind up on this critic’s year-end list of most disappointing albums of the year, which, if memory serves me correct, Kiss Each Other Clean did (in my case as a voter—it’s absent from the larger 2011 Most Disappointing Albums list here at PopMatters). Ghost on Ghost is quaint, and that’s better to hear than something that’s completely unmoving. Which is exactly what Kiss Each Other Clean was, and maybe the reason that Iron and Wine got their quasi-demotion in the first place. So consider Ghost on Ghost for what it is: it’s the sound of an artist trying to go on the rebound. That he partially succeeds may be cause for a quiet, at the very least, celebration, just like the sound of the album itself.