Music

Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog

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.


Iron & Wine

The Shepherd's Dog

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2007-09-25
UK Release Date: 2007-09-24
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.