In the Dixon household, a never-ending war goes on constantly. I have been a devotee to Sam Beam since Iron & Wine was only Sam Beam. In the gap between Our Endless Numbered Days and The Shepherd’s Dog, you will find the Woman King EP, a fabulous, overflowing meditation on the power of the differences between working alone, and working with a band. To my wife, that was enough. She has been a devotee half as long as I have, but her devotion is a blend of sycophantic and jaded. The last album, Kiss Each Other Clean, is a sharp point in this war. To me, it is a triumph, proving that Beam is not just a songwriter, but a conductor, able to change his music based on the people surrounding him. To my wife, it’s a bridge too far, and where Beam went too far with his full-band edge. During that tour, my wife vowed to never see Iron & Wine play again, at least not until he cooled it with the free-jazz improvisations that filled his live shows. She is one that yearns for the simple days of The Creek Drank The Cradle.
But for me, half the thrill of being a fan since Our Endless Numbered Days cooed me to sleep has been watching him evolve with a band. Each album has been more ambitious than the last, and as such, it proves rewarding to have held on for so long. Kiss Each Other Clean was a hot, sax-cooked mess of an album, culminating in a breakdown of a song, the glorious “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me,” a track that proves more abrasive than any song in Beam’s catalog. But earlier on that album is the goosebump-inducing “Godless Brother in Love”, a song that is equal parts gorgeous and affecting. It’s truly what he does best.
Between those two poles, two years later, lies Ghost on Ghost, an album that finds a solace in the ability to scale back the production, without sacrificing the heart. There are dozens of little touches that make the record worth it, like the smooth horn stabs on “Caught in the Briars”, or “ba-da-ba”‘s and string section on “The Desert Babbler”. And it’s incredibly hard to not get wrapped up in the saccharine touches of “Joy,” which is (as weird as it sounds) likely one of the most peaceful and easy-going songs in Beam’s incredibly extensive catalog of folk rock lullabies, awash with multitracked vocals and twinkling bells. It’s beautiful.
The rest of the album is beautiful, but past “Joy”, the real fun begins. It’s a grimy, vocal reverb drenched trip, and though all of the touches that proved unlikable by my wife are still there, it proves to be an exercise in restraint, and for the first time in Beam’s career, it seems he’s content with refining, rather than building. It sounds like it could have been recorded in an alternate universe where he had started with an orchestra, rather than in a place akin to that which John Darnielle (aka The Mountain Goats) found his footing in the 90s. “Low Light Buddy of Mine” slogs on with barroom saxophone and a rattling drum beat, pushing Beam to the back of the track – par for the course on Ghost on Ghost. And I dare you to sit still during “Grace For Saints and Ramblers,” a flat-out pop song the likes of which we haven’t seen from Iron & Wine… ever, if memory serves.
Now, you will notice that I haven’t talked about the songwriting on Ghost on Ghost up to this point. To me, it’s almost a waste of time to discuss Beam as a songwriter; he’s always on top of his game in that department, no matter what the band sounds like. This is a man who manage to toss out the line “We were born to fuck each other, one way or another” on “Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song)” from Woman King EP without coming off as one-dimensional or hackneyed. This album is no exception to the rule, and although it never reaches the transcendent levels that he’s achieved in the past, there’s nothing to sniffle about here. You’ll find all of Beam’s usual topics here: young lovers, sinners, organized religion, cats and mice. It’s a mark of his skill as a songwriter that, after being so far removed from “Sodom, South Georgia”, I can hear a line like “Chewed up and swallowed by the prophet they were trying to follow” and not roll my eyes; these are familiar characters that he manages to enhance with every go around.
The real question I feel myself asking is: will Ghost on Ghost please someone like my wife, who finds themselves bored with the AM radio soft jazz leanings of Iron & Wine’s music in the last few years? The short answer is, I’m not entirely sure. There are still songs on the album that the folk rock lovers will enjoy: “Winter Prayers” being an incredibly stripped down guitar-and-piano track, and “Baby Center Stage”, the album closer, feels like a much more natural progression for the band following Our Endless Numbered Days, a flat-out country song complete with lap steel. If you want to know what I think, it’s this: Sam Beam knows exactly what he’s doing, and no matter what the music sounds like, it will always be Iron & Wine. If you’re looking for a return to basics, you shouldn’t hold your breath. If this album is any indicator, he’s having too much fun not being alone anymore.