Every now and then, an artist becomes the figurehead of his genre not because he melts into the gimmick of the day, but because he fortuitously defines it, exceeds its expectations, and ultimately supersedes it altogether. Sam Beam's mollifying voice and arresting lyrics simultaneously thrust him atop the indie pedestal and entrenched him in a miry bog of lo-fi pseudo-folk that has a hairy habit of imbibing even the most promising potential. If The Shepherd's Dog, with its ticklish dabbling in world music, was a somewhat flummoxed, slightly shanked arrow, Kiss Each Other Clean is the ambitious target to which Beam meant to guide his strange, deviant jungle tones all along.
The opening track is as varied as the most muddled songs on The Shepherd's Dog but as focused any loom-woven four-chord pop song; "Walking Far From Home" lands ably somewhere in between. The poised melody trails behind the chord changes in a way we've heard a million times before, but the oft-hung drapes loll more charmingly over Beam's opulent lyrical lunette. Lead single "Tree By The River" makes an early play at the summer airwaves, though it faces a snub because "Maryanne, do you remember the tree by the river when we were seventeen?" may not be suggestive enough for America's desensitized trend manufacturers and consumers; wherever Beam's head is when he's writing these stilling songs, it's nowhere near the new millennium ... and the sub-mainstream music landscape is all the more wholesome for it, even if he drops a F-bombs in the marginally cheeky "Monkeys Uptown."
But Kiss Each Other Clean owes its welcome fortune not to its anthemic potential, but to its fluidity. Each track compliments the one below and above it in unique ways that allows the uniformly dense album to pass unobtrusively. Beam lends his toothsome voice to a rare minor number, "Rabbit Will Run," not a measure too late or too soon. Slabbed between the jaunty "Half Moon" and the placid, dulcifying ballad "Godless Brother In Love," the track uses rainforest-ready chromatic percussion to accent the classically Americana-tinged lyrics about compromising innocence and embracing responsibility. As Beam sings, "The last I saw mother, she blew me a kiss / When they caught me, the cuffs cut the blood from my wrists / Because the rabbit will run, and the pig has to lay in its piss," his faithful band raindances around a dominating bassline that sympathized with Beam's melody but never gives it the upper hand.
The same way "Rabbit Will Run" dilutes the cheery tone with a jolt of euphoric tension, "Big Burned Hand" follows "Godless Brother In Love" with a drunken stroll that still points as directly to Beam's aesthetic prowess as its predecessor. "Big Burned Hand" challenges the poignancy of first 70 percent of the album with burnout sax squeals and and spotty, sauced drums. Seven-minute closer "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me" works the same moonshine-flavored magic. The fluttery, almost tropical guitar trills in the beginning beckon an Animal Collective-ripoff ripoff (not a typo), but the unexpected horn takeover shatters whatever leisurely expectations the listener might have incurred in the first 14 seconds. For a conventional song's worth of time, Beam musters his fullest, most authoritative voice while the drums and guitar follow the horns as far blues as Iron & Wine is willing to go. Burdened with the laborious task of concluding such a thorough, potentially career-defining record, the song takes a four-and-a-half-minute turn as Beam asserts that "We will become" everything from "the rising sun" to "a disco ball." It's no "Flightless Bird," but, unlike its predecessor, this impenetrable album needed an epic foray, not a Twilight-ready crooner, to lay it to rest.
For all the unquestioned respect Sam Beam's unwavering early folk stylings have garnered him throughout the past decade, Kiss Each Other Clean solidifies the defiantly versatile tone he primed with The Shepherd's Dog. Now, for every "Upward Over The Mountain," he has a "Walking Far From Home"; for every "Naked As We Came," a "Godless Brother In Love"; and, for the sake of granting The Shepherd's Dog as much credit as it deserves*, for every "Trapeze Swinger," a "Boy With A Coin." Kiss Each Other Clean is Beam's way of filling every pigeon-hole imaginable before his fans or the media can shove him in any. Had he failed, he would have created dozens of new avenues along which old fans could pine for his lo-fi heyday. Fortunately for Beam, "heyday" is a word that doesn't apply to truly great songwriters until they die.
"Walking Far From Home":
"Tree By The River":
"Big Burned Hand":
Kiss Each Other Clean is in stores now ... buy it here.
Iron & Wine is playing Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA on 4/16; Higher Ground in Burlington, VT on 4/17; the State Theater in Portland, ME on 4/18, and the House of Blues in Boston on 4/19 ... For the love of a pagan angel and a borrowed car, be sure to catch at least one of those shows.
*Although this review would like you to think otherwise, I actually really love The Shepherd's Dog.