Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam may have established himself as through his whisper-like singing and straight to four track acoustic recordings, but his continued growth as a musician has come full circle with his fourth album, Kiss Each Other Clean. Beam has gone from the kind of reserved yet haunting style of Nick Drake to the full on bombast of another 70’s folk troubadour, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. It’s a suit that fits him well, as Kiss Each Other Clean manages to strike the balance between song craft and experimentation that struck a chord with audiences forty years ago.
From the first note of opening track and instant standout “Walking Far From Home,” it is clear that the full-band approach incorporated on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog has come to define the new Iron & Wine sound. However, Kiss Each Other Clean takes that template several steps further by adding diverse instrumentation and a willingness to experiment and take risks. Saxophones, funky guitar solos, and African inspired percussion are only some of the new tools in the band’s repertoire, and they are given room to build thanks to the more progressive slant of the album. The amazing thing is that the experimentation never sounds contrived or gets in the way of a strong hook. In much the same vein as The Flaming Lips, the musical flourishes and indulgences Iron & Wine utilize here only work to strengthen the pop foundations the songs are built upon.
While the change in musical direction is a marvel in itself, Beam’s voice is what truly elevates this album into its own. While he was able to convey some level of depth through his whispering into the mic, Kiss Each Other Clean sees Beam throwing all caution to the wind and singing with force to astounding effect. The songs are given an extra layer of warmth and color through his performances here, exclaiming the nostalgic love sentiments of the excellent “Tree By The River” and the delicate yet beautiful “Godless Brother In Love.” Much like Anderson, his vivid lyrics are brought to life through his emotive singing, and it is hard to believe he has been hiding a voice this rich from listeners all of these years. Even the tracks that return him closer to his roots, such as “Half Moon” and to an extent and the Aqualung nodding “Glad Man Singing,” benefit from his newfound confidence as a singer, and it makes just about every song on the album an absolute joy to listen to.
With Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron & Wine have taken a bold step forward into the spotlight. While there will be a good number of people who will miss the crack and hiss of Beam’s first couple of albums, he makes a strong statement for this new direction by sticking to what he does best. Like his British predecessors, he effortlessly crafts memorable songs that stand on their own regardless of the musical canvas he paints on, and Kiss Each Other Clean adds new shades of color to his once black and white palate.