Although the pace has been piecemeal over nearly a decade, Sam Beam certainly can’t be faulted for the stylistic progression and artistic reach he has extended for Iron & Wine since 2002’s lovely The Creek Drank The Cradle debut. It could have been all too easy for Beam to have continually mined that said first album’s lo-fi co-joining of Nick Drake and Will Oldham, which would have greatly robbed his intimate rurally-charmed songwriting of career-sustaining infusions from the wider world. Hence, we’d have been deprived of the blues-folk bliss framings on 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, the percussive Cajun-slanted charms inside 2005’s Woman King EP and the African and dub shadings of 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog. Cumulatively, such advances have lead us to Kiss Each Other Clean, possibly one of the most unconventional and uncompromising debuts for a major label (for Warners in the US at least, with 4AD being the new independent foothold for Europe) since The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife.
Opening with an electronic drone set against Beam’s gentile tones, that evolves into a lush but gritty Grizzly Bear via The Flaming Lips orchestration, “Walking Far From Home” sets out the album’s eclectic expansive agenda from the start. With multi-layered recording throughout – no doubt aided by a bigger budget – Kiss Each Other Clean is very much about Beam playing the studio as instrument (albeit with the back-up of touring bandmates, various members on loan from Califone and the Chicago Underground Duo’s dextrous drummer, Chad Taylor). Consequently, the LP seems even less wedded to concerns about on-stage conversions than The Shepherd’s Dog. This sonically ambitious attitude divorces the Iron & Wine musical idiom even further from the original The Creek Drank The Cradle template whilst retaining Beam’s unassuming appeal.
Most noticeable on first inspection are the heavy doses of Steely Dan meets Brian Wilson honeyed-pop references on the gorgeous likes of “Glad Man Singing” and “Half Moon” (which both also share Sufjan Stevens’ knack for integral beatific backing vocals). On second spin, up rise the sax-infiltrations and skewed jazz rhythms of “Me And Lazarus,” “Big Burned Hand” and the sprawling seven minute “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me,” which balance the obliqueness of the recently departed Captain Beefheart with the melodic playfulness of Shrimp Boat. Electronics take on a significant role during most of the long-player but are most prevalent on the segmented movements of “Rabbit Will Run” and “Monkeys Uptown,” which make respectful nods to Brian Eno and Tortoise with fizzing synths and tropically-programmed percussion. For long-time fans less resilient to the shifting soundscapes of latter-day Iron & Wine, there is some comfort to be found in the swaying “Tree By The River” and the plaintive piano-led “Godless Brother In Love.”
Such is the rich detail dispersed across Kiss Each Other Clean that it demands some intensive listening to absorb all of its pleasures, especially when the choruses are not as cleanly-cut as one might expect of such a well-groomed higher-profile release. If there are nits to be picked, then it could be argued that Beam could occasionally have restrained from full overdub saturation, allowing some more organic elements to breathe more openly without artificial assistance. However, with his confident and arrogance-free vocal/lyrical presence still affixed to strong yet cryptic allusions to nature, romance, politics and religion, Sam Beam’s muse remains an earthy and very humane operation within the impressively kaleidoscopic Kiss Each Other Clean.