Apparently, there’s only so much creativity to be had with a guitar in a bedroom. For the past several years, singer-songwriter Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) has been on a consistent trek away from the whisper-quiet folk that defined The Creek Drank the Cradle, and toward bigger and bigger arrangements, peaking with 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean. With his fifth full-length studio release Ghost On Ghost, Beam continues this trend away from the bedroom musically (if not lyrically), with a production that is not necessarily “bigger” than the last, but more refined.
Actually, when I listen to this record, I realize that if this were my first taste of Iron & Wine, I would barely know this Sam Beam incarnation started out as lo-fi indie-folk. Rife with understated horns, retro-sounding Fender Rhodes and lush “ooh-ahh” harmonies, Ghost On Ghost has all the earmarks of a 70’s pop/jazz/funk album. The opening track “Caught In the Briars” seems to bounce around genres in the first minute, faking a huge build-up intro before introducing one of the few appearances of folky guitar work, then finally settling into an island-influened pop/funk vibe. The next tune, “The Desert Babbler” moves into a comfortable lounge-y shuffle dripping with 70’s horn and string arrangements. Beam’s folk roots peer out briefly with tunes like “Joy” and “Winter Prayers”, only to dissolve into the retro-pop of songs like “Grace For Saints and Ramblers,” the funk of “Singers and the Endless Song” and the lounge jazz of “Lover’s Revolution.”
Lest you think Beam has lost his way in all this, it will still be obvious to the fans from the insightful, melancholy-tinged songwriting that this is still Iron & Wine—he’s just painting with a bigger palate on a broader canvas. Even with the bigger arrangements, the music is never overstated, and you can still picture Beam with head lowered, eyes averted, ruminating quietly on love, sex, life and pain. Through it all, he’s careful not to let the band or background vocalists upstage the song. It’s actually very tasteful, skillful arranging, if you ask me.
The truth is, as I said before, there’s only so much creativity to be had with a guitar in a bedroom. Given his brooding nature, if Iron & Wine’s fifth album sounded like the first, we’d all be either bored, or depressed, or both. By continuing to add colors to his palate, Sam Beam is finding new ways to express the music that is most definitely Iron & Wine. To me, Ghost On Ghost is simply a continuation of a healthy evolution.