It’s been a long way to the top for Sam Beam. From his early home recordings full of reduced acoustic beauty to the success of his Twilight-contribution Flightless Bird and the well-deserved Billboard-entry with his latest work, it is quite obvious, that the man behind IRON & WINE took some time to let his music evolve naturally. One has to keep that in mind if it comes to judge the new record, Ghost On Ghost. It’s definitely no step back to The Creek Drank The Cradle, nor is it a sheer sequel for 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean – it is, once again, a unique musical entity, that stresses this man’s will and ability to create something different with every album he puts out.
One basic aspect of IRON & WINE‘s development is a simple one: the number of musicians involved. With Ghost On Ghost, Beam has now become the lead-singer of a eleven-piece-band, including the already familiar horn-section. Therefore, the task has been pretty similar to the one, that showed up on Kiss Each Other Clean: how to keep up the intimacy of his songs in such broadband-arrangements? One way, of course, remains to be Beam’s gentle, soothing voice as a focal point in the playful potpourri of sounds, instruments and styles. Centered by the band-leader, reggae-rhythms, funk-guitars and free-jazz-sections assemble varying moods and dynamics, while frequently choirs come in and add some soulful gospel to the top. Sounds like cognitive overload you say? Well, despite all that, Ghost On Ghost strangely finds its strength in the laid-back atmosphere rather than the experimental bigband-jams of his predecessor.
“It’s new years eve/ California’s gonna kill you soon”, Beam quails in The Desert Babbler, though the music following is not that somber at all. Most of the songs are settled within their three minute-frames, allowing jams only when it’s suitable, most obvious in the jazzy Lover’s Revolution. Lyrically, nonetheless, there still is a fair amount of metaphorical mysticism going on here, that feels quite comfortable in its vagueness but for the most parts, still is captivating enough to sense the mind and heart of a rambling man behind it. Or, as Beam himself puts it in Joy: “Deep inside the heart of this troubled man/ there’s an itty-bitty boy tugging hard on your hand”.
In the end, despite all the complexity, it’s still quite simple: spring’s finally arrived and what we’ve got here is the soundtrack for a memory of shyly exchanged backyard kisses and bright, innocent smiles under the first warm sunrays. Nevermind the heartache and growing doubt! It’s just us, getting old, you know? And it feels utterly good to do so with Sam Beam’s grown-up jazzpop serving as the soundtrack.
Stream the entire album over at NPR.org.