Samuel Beam—better known as Iron & Wine—is often hailed as the master of simplicity. Plucking at his guitar and gently crafting poetically simple lyrics and lullaby-like melodies, Beam has the power to send listeners down memory lane and make cozy rooms turn in slow motion. Nine years after the band’s debut, Iron & Wine have released their most ambitious album yet: “Kiss Each Other Clean.” The album is an enormous departure from their earlier work. Its fusion of new sounds and genres perhaps shows artistic growth, but what the album gains from instrumental and vocal adventure, it loses in intimacy.
The move from bedroom studios to the hallowed halls of Warner Brothers has indeed transformed Iron & Wine’s overall sound, with Beam’s voice sounding louder and more defined than ever. Beam’s larger vocals complement the electric guitar solos and complex brass instrumentals on tracks like “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me,” the seven-minute album closer that starts off as a slow gospel jam before slowly crescendoing. With soaring harmonies enveloping his voice, Beam celebrates the different facets of human nature and identity through his lyrics. He declares beautifully, “We will become / ... Become the rising sun / ... Become the river sway / ... Become the blossom and the wilt / ... Become the weary and wild.”
Though the new elements blend together well, listening to the new album will inevitably leave the band’s devotees hungry for the holy hushes that once made Iron & Wine tracks intoxicatingly tender. Instead of creating small, poetic images like the early-morning, autumn romance of “Naked as We Came,” “Kiss Each Other Clean” focuses more on producing catchy songs. “Monkeys Uptown,” for example, is compositionally playful, employing light staccato notes and tribal drums to interrupt its melodic phrases. However, while Beam sings of heaven and the Archangel Gabriel, he fails to create any sort of mystical atmosphere. The result is a track that encourages contented foot-tapping, but one that fails to profit from Beam’s lyrical prowess.
“Big Burned Hand” is another instance of privileging the ears rather than the heart. Its outsized introduction—adorned with big band horns—gives the track a sprinkle of New Orleans jazz and allows the band to experiment with cross-genre textures. But with so many instruments fighting for attention, Beam’s voice becomes overshadowed. Many tracks suffer from this crammed production, and thus are bereft of Beam’s typically understated magic.
The album’s few ballads that may have let Beam’s signature skills shine instead rely on mundane melodies and stale structures. Even “Godless Brother in Love” which features Beam fading in and out of his falestto, simply wallows in a mid-register, mid-volume range, and lacks the intimacy, soft buildups, and poignancy that once made his ballads something to be cherished.
Still, the band’s fearless navigation through the unexpected is admirable. With retro jazz, tropical pulsations, and bluegrass sounds permeating the album, “Kiss Each Other Clean” is a transcontinental ride of sorts. While the country twang of “Half Moon” is juxtaposed with its soft female sighs, “Me and Lazarus” mixes lushness and core-funk feel to stunning effect. Beam shines lyrically on this track as well—his biblical reference to the revived leper is unexpectedly entertaining: “He’s an emancipated punk and he can dance / But he’s got a hole in the pocket of his pants / Must be a symptom of outstanding circumstances.”
While “Kiss Each Other Clean” succeeds in marking Beam’s development—and is a catchy, pleasing, and solidly produced album—it loses that special spark that makes Iron & Wine unique. In the midst of all the volume and orchestration, Beam seems to have forgotten that sometimes less is more, and that change is not always good.