If you were to listen to the very first Iron & Wine recording, The Creek Drank The Cradle, and put it back-to-back with Kiss Each Other Clean, you’d find one similarity: Sam Beam. To be an Iron & Wine fan, it seems, is to be a folk rock fan who is not afraid of change, and this is not a bad thing. When his last EP, Woman King, came out, it was light years away from the bright folk of its predecessor, the full-length Our Endless Numbered Days: it was bright as hell, with a full band sound behind him, which was a far cry from the sound of nothing but Sam Beam and his guitar. By the time The Shepherd’s Dog came out, he had fully formed this new way of making his music, with a record full of exciting new sounds and sensations, and though it didn’t lose his time-honored lyrical style and delivery, it felt so far removed from anything before Woman King, it was hard to even call it the same band.
Kiss Each Other Clean is very much like that. It introduces a lot of new concepts for Iron & Wine’s music, and they all fit in very well. From the moment Beam’s distorted vocals come in atop a wash of equally distorted guitar feedback on the first song, “Walking Far From Home,” it sets a new tone for everything. The words he sings will never, ever waver from those dusty, Southern gothic lyrics that have permeated every inch of every song he’s written, but it feels so much more triumphant now than it would have back then. He brings in his favorite subjects here: the young lovers (“I saw lovers in a window / Whisper, “Want me like time, want me like time””), the prisoners (“Saw a prisoner take a pistol
And say, “Join me in song, join me in song””), and his favorite staple, religion (“Saw a car crash in the country / Where the prayers run like weeds along the road,” “And it came like a call, came like a call, from the Lord”). It almost feels the end of a ballet, when every character is brought in for one last round of applause. However, if you’ve been following Iron & Wine, you know they aren’t going anywhere at all.
The record has a vaguely kitchen-sink feel to it; the moment the horns come in on the second track, “Me And Lazarus,” you feel as though the brass was supposed to be here the entire time, and it is just now rearing its head. It brings a dingy feel to every song it touches, and it almost completely cements the great leap forward that the music has taken, and leaves nothing behind. It’s the same feeling when the thumb piano comes into play in the pulsating centerpiece “Rabbit Will Run,” which gives the song a strange, unearthly glow, on top of its already eccentric sound. It’s entirely unlike anything you might find anywhere else in his catalog, and it works flawlessly. It’s the same story on “Monkeys Uptown”: the groove of the song feels sickly, but not in a bad way: it wouldn’t be right any other way. This kind of sound showed itself best on “House By The Sea” on The Shepherd’s Dog, a song with a sway so strange, it’s not hard to imagine that Beam decided it needed to become a recurring theme.
Then, there’s the closer: “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me.” Iron & Wine can be described as many things: “dream-like,” “pastoral,” “folksy.” But there’s one word that comes to mind immediately when listening to the song: “Abrasive.” The song grinds against its horn section, with Beam almost howling over it and the distorted, syncopated guitars. It’s a far cry from his typical whisper, and it fits him perfectly here. It’s a tower of a song: at 7-minutes, it’s the second longest Iron & Wine song, and the longest album track to date (the classic “The Trapeze Swinger” has it beat by three minutes), and it’s easily the most daring thing he’s done so far. It’s jazzy as all get out, especially considering the batshit-crazy breakdown that comprises the last 2/3rds of the song. It’s a track so at odds with the rest of the band’s history, it’s almost essential to remember, more than once, that it’s even the same man that wrote “Naked As We Came” so many years ago.
Of course, the album is not without its standard sounding songs. The gorgeous “Godless Brother In Love” is a heart-wrenching song that would ruin the pace of the record, if it weren’t so flawless. It’s the antithesis of “Your Fake Name,” with nothing but twinkling guitars and piano, and some of the most ethereal coos ever made by a band that used to write the prettiest lullabies in popular indie rock. “Half Moon” sounds, in a lot of ways, like the sonic twin of “Resurrection Fern,” one of the far-and-away standout tracks from Shepherd’s Dog, if “Resurrection Fern” packed a “doo-wop” chorus backing Beam’s vocals.
Three tracks in, Beam makes good on a promise he made in interviews preceding the record, when he said this about it: “It sounds like the music people heard in their parent’s car growing up… that early-to-mid-’70s FM, radio-friendly music.” The song itself is gorgeous, but one line sums up the record flawlessly: “I recall the sun in our faces / Stuck and leaning on graces / And being strangers to change.” To be an Iron & Wine fan is to accept that change, and know that the sounds you hear now are bound to be totally different when he comes back. It has made Iron & Wine one of the most unexpected acts in music today, and it makes every single release that much more exciting.