In our last CD review, of the new Decemberists album, I wondered how the band’s longtime fans would react to their new sound. Well, I can ask the same question here, with Iron and Wine’s latest release, “Kiss Each Other
Originally, Iron and Wine was Sam Beam, solo acoustic folkster. He built a fanbase around his hushed vocals and soft sound. Band members were added and world beat flavorings were introduced for the next pair of albums, “Woman King” and “The Shepard’s Dog.” The hushed vocals were now enveloped by a swirling, churning beats. Iron and Wine became critic darlings and the fanbase grew and grew. In fact, this is where I came in. “Woman King,” to me, was dazzling.
And that brings us to “Kiss Each Other Clean,” in which the band, and especially its leader Beam breaks out and offers some new surprises.
The first surprise is that I can finally understand his lyrics. I loved “Woman King” mostly for the music and mostly because I couldn’t make out what Beam was whispering. On the new album, the vocals are out front. On the opener, “Walking Far From Home,” he sings: I was walking far from home/And I found your face mingled in the crowd/Saw a boat-full of believers/Sail off talking too loud, talking too loud.” I didn’t have to look those lyrics up; I could actually hear them!
The other surprise is that the songs are a lot more accessible. I wouldn’t call them pop songs, but they are certainly more catchy than his past works. He still is offering up his takes on love and faith, and some of the lyrics are actually quite dark. But then there’s “Tree By the River,” which opens with the line “Marianne, do you remember the tree by the river when we were 17.” It almost sounds like a line from a Beach Boys song!
The tunes continue to have a world of influences. Touches of gospel, blues, world beat are weaved through the songs. On “Monkeys Uptown,” percussion, electronic sounds, echoing guitar and marimba percolate under Beam’s lyrics. A toy flute wanders amid blasts of heavy fuzz of electric guitar in the haunting “Rabbit Will Run.” Blasts of clarinet punch through the funk beat of “Big Burned Hand.” Beam litters the album with ear candy — fuzzed-out vocals, funked-up bass lines, organs, wind instruments, and electronica of all sorts.
It all sounds interesting, if not memorable. But by album’s end, I start to grow weary. I really am wishing the band would play one song without the bells and whistles. I just kind of need a break.
I don’t long for the good old days, but a reminder every once in while wouldn’t hurt.
NPR concert of new album