The days when Sam Beam ushered in a whole new era of DIY indie lo-fi music with records like the hollow and chilling The Creek Drank the Cradle seem further away than ever after hearing Ghost on Ghost, Iron & Wine’s lush and layered new album.
Iron & Wine’s last release, 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean, offered a tribute to Bob Dylan’s visionary surrealism with “Hard Rain”-type dystopian travelogues like “Walking Far From Home.” It was an intense, gripping album that reflected the high point of Beam’s interest in off-kilter rhythms and African and Arabic percussion forms that he’d been experimenting with since 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog.
Interesting rhythms continue to abound on Ghost on Ghost, but this time around it seems as though Beam and company have fallen in love with all of the possibilities offered by constructing an album by stacking and blending instrumental textures like paint on a canvas. Individual instrumental performances have been layered to create a very appealing wall of sound effect. Jazzy tags have been inserted—sometimes muted, other times amplified—while Sgt. Pepper-style intros and outros bridge songs like “Caught in the Briars” and “The Desert Babbler” together to challenge our perceptions of the boundaries between pop and experimental music.
On the surface, Ghost On Ghost is an exemplary pop album of the highest order. It’s thrilling to hear a true artist like Beam use the studio for something other than autotuning or correcting faults in the performances. On tracks like “Joy,” the rich sound achieved in the studio recalls The Beach Boys during their Pet Sounds period, minus the surf boards, sunny beaches and carefree ambience. On other tracks like “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” the subtle inclusion of a hip-hop drum beat pulls all the disparate sounds together to create a melodic trajectory that glides smoothly from beginning to end.
As shiny and perfect as these songs sound from a distance, get up close, dig around a little and it won’t take too long to find some fairly strange and disturbing things going on in the subtext. The lyrics remain slightly sinister and upsetting and prevent the listener from completely relaxing and surrendering to the beauty of the musical arrangements. Songs like “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” and “Sundown (Back in the Briars)” reflect Beam’s continued love of surrealistic and impressionistic lyrics. Lines like “sleepless dreamers, Tuesday preachers, message and the messenger come beneath the register” suggest that he’s been dipping into the work of William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and other beat poets. As with other Iron & Wine albums, images keep repeating themselves through the song cycle. Who are the “naked boys” that keep popping up in songs like “Sundown” and “Caught in the Briars”? Where do they come from? Where did their clothes go? Who is looking at them?
Whether Iron & Wine will keep the considerable audience they attracted by being included on various Twilight movie soundtracks remains to be seen. For his part, Sam Beam is singing and playing guitar better than ever, and no matter how huge a musical palette he’s drawing from or how complex the arrangements of any song are, every song essentially relies on the type of simple melody that made early albums like Our Endless Numbered Days so enduring and popular amongst the soft rock set. Indeed, if he chose to do so, Sam Beam could probably spend the rest of his career recreating B-grade versions of his early mellow favorites and retire early and rich. But, he’s not that kind of artist. It’s already depressing enough to see so many artists fighting for the lowest common denominator because they’re terrified of looking beyond their musical niche for inspiration. With every album since The Shepherd’s Dog, Beam has shown that he values passion and artistic growth above marketability to join an elite group of artists that includes Beck, Bjork and Radiohead who continue to take risks and push their own personal envelopes.
With 12 great new songs, each with its own spirit, style and direction, Ghost On Ghost is the best album in Iron & Wine’s already impressive discography.