Talk about setting the bar high. Iron & Wine have released their new album, following a release of a bonus track album so good that “God Made the Automobile” topped my Best of 2009 list, and a release of their last LP “The Shepherd’s Dog”, which I called the #5 album of the entire decade. Suffice it to say I love all things Iron & Wine.
“Kiss Each Other Clean” brings some stylistic changes, which can be both good and bad. Early Iron & Wine fans are probably used to nothing more than a hushed whisper for vocals, a la “Such Great Heights”, which introduced the band to fans of the movie Garden State. More recent Iron & Wine fans probably are more familiar with the placement of their most emotive song to date, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”, during a pivotal moment in the first Twilight movie. Indeed this small indie outfit has nearly 7 million views of this song when you put Edward and Bella’s face on it on Youtube. Oh the irony and backlash potential when one of indie music’s darlings has such a prominent place is one of the most popular and mainstream movies in years.
One thing that is certain about their new album is that if all you know of Iron & Wine is that you loved that “one song in Twilight”, you probably won’t find much to like here, since save for one song the sound is quite different here. It is by far their noisiest, haziest, and most experimental work to date, from the fuzzed out building emotion of “Walking Far From Home”, the hushed horns on “Me and Lazarus”, to the pepped-up “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me”. But the songs are still, once again, outstanding nearly all the way through. “Rabbit Will Run” takes the underwater-ish vocals that were so prominent on personal favorite “Carousel”, and attaches it with a rush of energy. “Godless Brother in Love” tones it down a notch, removes the haze, and shows that when Sam Beam wants to sing a piano ballad, there’s no one out their with better chops to pull it off. For fans of the old Iron & Wine, there are a couple throwbacks here, notably “Half Moon” and “Tree by the River”, which keeps the focus more on minimalist folk. And have no doubt that lyrically, nothing has changed here. Beam is a master of imagery and vague religious references, and can move you at times (“I was walking far from home/Where the names were not burned along the wall/Saw a wet road form a circle/And it came like a call, came like a call from the Lord”)
It’s clear Iron & Wine have continuously “progressed” towards a more lush sound, but the question amongst fans will be whether they like the direction they’ve gone. On this album they are neither the folk outfit they started out to be or the pop outfit some may have wanted them to be, but it’s hard to argue after to listening to these songs that no matter who you say they are, they are pretty dang good at it.