Last time we heard from Iron & Wine in full album form, he was successfully incorporating world music into his classic folk sound onto 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog. It was an unlikely success, and all the more gratifying for having been unforeseen. Ever since Iron & Wine entered the public consciousness with the gorgeous and spare The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002), frontman Sam Beam has been trying to figure out how to flesh out his achingly intimate songs. Follow-up Our Endless Numbered Days (2004) was undeniably lovely, but there were moments that betrayed a fledgling comfort with the idea of being backed by a full band. The Shepherd’s Dog found just the right quirky avenue for Beam and his collaborators to explore.
But it’s been over three years since Iron & Wine have released a proper album, and the wait is soon coming to an end. On January 25th, Warner Bros. will release Kiss Each Other Clean, sating legions of fans of gentle, literary folk at long last. Judging by the advance single that Iron & Wine released on Record Store Day, Beam is ever modifying, tweaking his song-craft in new and exciting ways.
Walking Far From Home manages to be Iron & Wine’s most erratic release in the short span of three songs. All three songs retain enough recognizable qualities to ensure that no one would mistake them for the work of anyone else, but Beam takes the skeletal structure of his songs and puts them in some surprising contexts. “Summer in Savannah” should be instantly familiar to fans of The Shepherd’s Dog, characterized as it is by a rambling performance from Beam planted into the center of a west-African polyrhythm. It’s a spooky, groovy little tune, but it’s the songs that precede and follow it that mark Walking Far From Home as such an unpredictable release.
The title track has all the hallmarks of a classic Iron & Wine album-ender; a beautiful, unchanging melody, vivid and melancholy lyrics (“I saw loaded linen tables/ and a motherless coat then it was gone/ I saw hungry brothers waiting/ with the radio on”). Nothing too surprising there, but Beam chooses to augment these recognizable elements with a variety of slow-building bursts of fuzzed-out distortion. In fact, the song’s structure practically emerges from one of these heavy bursts before taking a more common Iron & Wine approach. Maybe Beam’s been holding this trick in his back pocket for a while, or maybe Beam has just gotten around to listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Either way, it suits him.
On the other end of “Summer in Savannah”, longtime fans of Iron & Wine will assuredly taken aback by “Biting Your Tail” for one simple reason: there are beats. No, not beats in the way that any song that has percussion has beats. Rather, “Biting Your Tail” largely relies on a tightly coiled, snappy, hip-hop beat, and that beat is complimented by some bass-heavy, squelchy synthesizers. Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about this song. The main melody is plenty appealing, and Beam lands a bunch of truly quotable sentiments (“May your words be well worth stealing” to name but one), but the surrounding noise is jarring and distracting.
Regardless, it’s nice to know that Iron & Wine hasn’t been resting on his laurels during his extended absence. Here’s hoping Kiss Each Other Clean is just as adventurous as this preview.