For all of the pastoral beauty found throughout Sam Beam’s catalog as Iron And Wine, it’s the moments of desolation, violence and disruption that stand out the most. That’s true not only of his prickly folk songs but also of his entire career arc thus far. Ever since 2005′s mold-breaking Woman King EP, he’s remained committed to inadvertently antagonizing his audience by following his muse, finding new ways to blow up his sensitive, bearded troubadour image. I still remember listening to the EP’s final track, “Evening On The Ground (Lilith’s Song),” and being startled to hear a propulsive, maniacal energy, an honest-to-God electric guitar solo and Beam snarling, “We were born to fuck each other one way or another.” He’s been gently fucking with his fans ever since, first on a collaborative EP with Arizona’s Calexico, then on his 2007 backwoods jam session of an album, The Shepherd’s Dog, and 2011′s Cat Stevens-ish Kiss Each Other Clean. He still has the beard, but we now have more Iron And Wine albums in the country-fried, ’70s pop vein than in the hushed, lo-fi acoustic-guitar-centric aesthetic that made him a dorm-room hero in the first place. The troubadour is long gone.
And yet Beam’s earnest folkie persona persists, and it’s not just a problem of perception. He’s transformed Iron And Wine first from a bedroom project into a robust touring band and then transitioned into a new phase as a hard-working studio rat. And with every evolution, he’s still winking back at his old self, whether he’s performing his early material by himself at shows or slipping the occasional throwback song into his more rollicking new albums. Though Beam remains committed to the idea of evolution, he’s not above the occasional regression. He thrives on interruption: blood in the river, snakes in the weeds, barbed wire hidden in the bush. His latest album, Ghost On Ghost, is yet another attempt to swerve in a new direction, but for the first time it’s a little too easy to see where he’s going.
Ghost On Ghost doubles down on Kiss Each Other Clean’s focus on rhythm and interest in percussion, with drummer Brian Blade and other jazz musicians providing flourishes throughout, but the album is at its strongest when Beam is selective and discriminating in his instrumental choices. Opener “Caught In The Briars” kicks off with a faded cacophony of playing before revealing a simple, plainspoken melody and a patient, shuffling beat. Even better is “Low Light Buddy Of Mine,” which keeps Beam’s voice slightly buried in the mix and builds around a head-knocking snare beat that deserves to be flipped by an enterprising hip-hop producer. It’s the perfect melding of Beam’s ambitious experimentation and his generous use of space as a mood-building device.
Like the shadow-filled, vulgar plays of Sam Shepard or the blood-soaked, sparse books of Cormac McCarthy, Beam has always been fascinated by blank space, both rhythmically and lyrically. He’s at his worst when he’s working too hard to fill that space, like on the rambling “The Desert Babbler.” The song starts strong with one of Beam’s best openers (“It’s New Year’s Eve/California’s gonna kill you soon”), but by the time the chorus comes around with its mush of Christmas wine, dreary sentimentality and ’50s sock-hop backing vocals, it buckles under the weight of its own preening cuteness. Ghost On Ghost is too often miscalculating in its choices and too timid in its execution. Certain arrangements on the album—”Grass Widows” and “Singers And The Endless Song” especially—feel overblown not because they’re especially dramatic but because they sound like they were designed for a more robust singer who can yell over the racket a little better.
That doesn’t mean all of Beam’s baroque gambits fall flat. “Grace For Saints And Ramblers” is a cheery, sprightly ballad awash with hand claps, violins, horns and wooing backing vocals. It sounds breezy and fun, but danger lurks in the corners. “There were sleepless dreamers/Doomsday preachers,” he sings. “The message and the messenger/Gun beneath the register.” Despite his occasional musical missteps, Beam has only grown more precise and evocative as a lyricist, piling finely observed details and pointed asides into these increasingly decadent songs. His most powerful imagery often comes when he feels safely entrenched in a jazzy fortress of a song, like the acid-waltz pop of “Lovers’ Revolution.” That song’s frazzled lilt contrasts with cutting, succinct lyrics like, “And while she cried on the cross, we were sucking on the laughing gas/And when the head had left the body, not a flag was hanging half-mast.”
Ghost On Ghost too often sacrifices that razor-like specificity for a vaguely serene pleasantness. “In your restless days/I got lost/I got saved,” Beam sings on the album’s lukewarm, string-filled finale, “Baby Center Stage.” It’s good to know that ruminative, anxiety-ridden Beam has found enough comfort to stretch out, maybe take a nap on a hammock, but his digressions here have lost that adventurous “fuck you” quality that made his mid-period records so invigorating. After so much rapid reinvention, he’s found himself stalled in the middle of a transformation. In his constant quest to learn new tricks, he’s only ended up chasing his tail.