Album Review: Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean

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Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Records)

If Brian Wilson wanted the Beach Boys' Smile to be a "teenage symphony to God," it may be that Sam Beam has managed to write such a symphony for grown-ups on the latest offering from Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean. With the recording studio as his orchestra, Beam and his collaborators have made the most sonically baroque, filigreed Iron and Wine album yet — a pop tapestry that melds Beam's grainy, overcast intimacy with a palette of colors more intensely HDTV than he's ever utilized before. That those colors aren't always found in nature should not be perceived as a drawback.

Kiss Each Other Clean may illicit even more of the familiar grousing about Sam Beam's continued progression away from the minimalist aesthetic he established on Iron and Wine's 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, but again, that's missing the point; the shingle outside Beam's workshop no doubt reads "Gorgeous Songs For Any Budget," whether it's the scratchy, hiss-laden musings of his early work or the sparkling sound-stages of his recent output. 2007's The Shepherd's Dog declared quite plainly that Beam had no intentions of becoming a lo-fi self-parody, with its bell-like production and meticulous instrumental arrangements. This time, Beam ventures further into the dense forest of recording studio possibilities, finding ever more advanced levels of songwriting and production synergy — like a genius director lining up just the right actors, script, cinematographer, locations, editors and everything else and letting the whole machine hum along under his skilled guidance (Beam's producer, Brian Deck, has been his trusted partner in this aural adventure since Our Endless Numbered Days). This isn't mere sonic tinkering; it's almost a kind of meticulously ecstatic action-painting, sounding like it was conceived in a headrush of gee-whiz creative joy. At times, it's some of the most elegant, velvety pop cotton-candy you've likely heard in a while.

One thing that this record doesn't sound like, though, is live. These songs are studio artifacts through and through; instruments make the briefest appearances before disappearing again, materializing only for the most immediate aural titillation. Anonymous saxophones sound four notes and then vanish; choirs of multi-Sams appear in reedy treble panned hard left only to evaporate moments later. "Monkeys Uptown" melds LCD Soundsystem-esque drum machines and synth blurps with Tom Waits-ian xylophone and Stevie Wonder funk clavichord. "Half Moon" finds that magical split-second when Fleetwood Mac might have actually made something sublime and layers it with a warm rain of country-guitar and an angelic pop chorale hovering overhead. "Rabbit Will Run" mingles African thumb-piano, flute, Talk Talk distorto-organ blasts, wah-wah guitar, and ... slide whistle. Again, if this were all just a collection of its mad components, it would be the most ungodly cacophony punishable by public stoning. Sam Beam makes it music.

We so often perceive stylistic metamorphosis as the product of regrettable decisions — or simply self-conscious change for its own sake — when many times it's precisely what we (at least tell ourselves) want from our artists: the surrendering to inspiration in the pursuit of what delights their ears and hearts, and presumably, will subsequently do the same for ours. With Kiss Each Other Clean, the outer trappings that make up Iron and Wine may have changed a bit more once again, but it's merely the house that's morphing, not its inhabitant. Sam Beam's sweet, soulful vision remains intact — playing no longer as the sideshow but the grand, magnificent center ring.

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  • Iron and Wine perform live in The Current studio It's been nearly 10 years since Sam Beam donned the Iron and Wine moniker and released his debut "The Creek Drank The Cradle" in 2002. Since then, he's expanded the arrangements from his voice and an acoustic guitar to including a variety of other instruments, and he continues the trend on his newest album "Kiss Each Other Clean."
  • Iron and Wine Performs in the UBS Forum Sam Beam, who performs under the name Iron and Wine, brought his signature acoustic sound (and beard) to Minnesota Public Radio's UBS Forum, playing a couple of songs off his newest record "Kiss Each Other Clean".