Honestly, I hadn’t listened to Iron & Wine much in the past five years. 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days–and even moreso non-album tracks “No Moon” and “Sinning Hands”–was my “fall asleep” music in my first year of grad school. But I hadn’t paid much attention to Sam Beam’s latest work, so I expected more gentle whispers over lo-fi folk on fourth studio album Kiss Each Other Clean. Instead, I ended up with a Notepad full of observations like “funky!” “doo-wop?” and “What the hell? This is Iron & Wine?”
If the first three albums are the rural Deep South, then lead track “Walking Far From Home” is being dropped off in the heart of Manhattan without a cell phone, GPS, or change for public transit. The lyrics, which resemble the refined notes of a stream of consciousness stimuli overload (the “I saw” refrain is repeated throughout), are paralleled by layers of sound: percussion, background vocals, piano, and various sound effects. Beam warmly embraces his new environment over the remaining nine tracks, but the ghost of Iron & Wine past is never forgotten as Beam observes, “I was walking far from home / And I saw your face mingled in the crowd.”
The NYC melting pot of cultures is reflected in the album’s ventures into different genres of funk, 70’s pop, and modern indie rock. “Monkeys Uptown” and “Big Burned Hand” are especially indicative of Beam’s new funky self. Bass and percussion are much more prominent on this record, and the “doo-wops” of “Half Moon” demonstrate the careful genre blending that requires the listener’s full attention. “Godless Brother In Love” is probably the most traditionally Iron & Wine track on the record, though the highlights are the moments that Beam challenges the listener, like the eclectic “Rabbit Will Run” or epic closer “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me.”
If Our Endless Numbered Days was my “fall asleep” record, Kiss Each Other Clean might be more of a sunrise mix or a mid-day pick-me-up. Iron & Wine bravely redefines itself in what is sure to be a critically acclaimed move. The real question now is whether Beam finds a new residence in the city (and if it translates to the stage) or if he finds a way home.