Despite frontman Sam Beam’s many clear efforts to dramatically toy with or expand his signature sound, Iron & Wine always sounds like Iron & Wine. Any number of factors contributes to this. For starters, Beam’s hushed, edgeless voice is always recognizable. In a live setting, Beam has to adopt a more forceful and slightly muppet-y tone to make himself heard, but on record, his gentle whisper is as instantly familiar as Morrissey’s whine/croon or Tom Waits’ gravelly howl. Second, Beam remains topically consistent, choosing to explore the main themes of his work (the passage of time, religion, etc.) thoroughly and over the course of many songs and albums. Lastly, and this is perhaps the most important aspect of Iron & Wine’s appeal, Beam’s warmth unfailingly shines through any musical aesthetic he chooses. His characters painfully fail each other often, but Beam seems to see a world where even the most flawed people are trying to do right with their limited time in it.
So no matter how much stylistic distance there is between the graceful simplicity of 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle and the often deliriously congested The Shepherd’s Dog (2007), there’s always a familiar framework for Iron & Wine fans to savor. The latest, long-awaited effort from Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean, similarly provides an appreciable amount of musical growth mixed in with all of those aforementioned hallmarks of Beam’s career.
Once again, Beam finds inspiration in vivid and idyllic images (“Tree by the River”), the ever-present spectre of religion in southern gothic storytelling (“Me and Lazarus”), and familial comfort in the face of personal troubles (“Godless Brother in Love”). But Kiss Each Other Clean will stand out in the Iron & Wine catalog for reasons that have little to do with Beam’s predictably affecting lyricism.
By Iron & Wine standards, this is an unusually frisky record, even considering the intercontinental rhythms of The Shepherd’s Dog. “Rabbit Will Run,” for example, is positively stuffed with instrumentation, from the marimba-based beat, to the intermittently appearing clarinet runs, to the psychedelic organs populating the back half of the song. “Big Burned Hand” dives unabashedly into funk, with all of the flourishes (skronky saxophones, slap bass, wah-wah guitars) that choice entails. These are the elements of Kiss Each Other Clean that have the potential to alienate longtime Iron & Wine fans.
Naturally, there are a few choice folk ballads (“Half Moon,” “Godless Brother In Love,” “Glad Man Singing”) adorned with truly gorgeous background vocals to make the unconventional songs go down a little easier. Nonetheless, it’s pretty easy to predict that the majority of vehement reactions to Kiss Each Other Clean will focus on the work that has no real antecedent in the Iron & Wine canon. Regarding those songs, it’s not as simple as saying that the approach totally works or totally doesn’t. The musicians assembled by Beam for this album play every last stylistic anomaly convincingly, but Iron & Wine combined with Saturday morning cartoon funk is just tough to swallow no matter who the players are.
But again, Beam’s musical intrepidness has proved incredibly rewarding in the past, and save for a misstep or two, it does so often on Kiss Each Other Clean as well. The sprawling, rambling, mini-epic closer “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me” is just the right sort of stretch for Iron & Wine, taking a more widescreen approach to Beam’s sharply worded profundities. Beam recently remarked that he wanted Kiss Each Other Clean to sound like the sort of music you’d hear coming out of your parents’ car radio in the ‘70s, and in this regard, he succeeds more often than not. And when he fails, they’re admirable and minor failures.