In 2002, Iron & Wine debuted with The Creek Drank the Cradle, a brilliant Simon & Garfunkel-meets-Bob Dylan synthesis that caused many to proclaim a folk revival. Since this success, however, I&W’s singer-songwriter Samuel Beam has steadily drifted from his organic folk roots.
Kiss Each Other Clean by Iron & Wine. Warner Brothers.
By Michela Smith.
Boston remains capricious about folk music. While Joan Baez, James Taylor, and Bonnie Raitt began their strumming in rhythm with the Charles River, Pacific winds soon drew them and others westward, stripping the area of its folk identity. Thus, as critically hailed folk savior Iron & Wine (I&W) visits Boston’s House of Blues in April with his new album, Kiss Each Other Clean, its bushy-bearded messiah, Samuel Beam, has serious evangelical work to do.
In 2002 Iron & Wine debuted with The Creek Drank the Cradle, a brilliant Simon & Garfunkel-meets-Bob Dylan synthesis that caused many to proclaim a folk revival. Since this success, however, I&W’s singer-songwriter Beam has steadily drifted from his organic folk roots. With this latest album, Beam diverges completely and crafts Kiss Each Other Clean with producer Brian Deck to “sound like an early Elton John record.” While achieving John-like instrumentation on the uninteresting tracks “Walking Far From Home” and “Glad Man Singing,” most of the album fails to capture the storytelling spirit, charisma, and energy essential to John and, in previous years, to Beam.
Beam’s art-school training is evident in his imagist style on Kiss. Like brushstrokes, Beam sings in coarse, concise concepts, presuming his expressions will paint eloquent illustrations on tracks like “Me and Lazarus,” “Monkeys Uptown,” and “Rabbit Will Run.”
While imagism has the potential to be effective when complemented by an engaging storyline or a colorful backing track, Kiss’s tracks feature neither. Beam sings in a tangle of metaphors that feature nature, animal, and religious allusions, together rendering his message incomprehensible. Driven solely by electric bass, “Me And Lazarus” and “Monkeys Uptown” are only accompanied by random, extra-terrestrial sound bytes and the occasional electrical guitar whines, making the tracks entirely unsalvageable. “Rabbit Will Run” centers on an underdeveloped, African polyrhythm and misplaced Ian-Anderson-esque flute, making Beam’s inclusion of the disastrous pieces downright confusing.
When Beam deviates from this imagist pattern, Kiss achieves some aesthetic deliverance. On “Tree By the River,” simple acoustic guitar and a chorus of innocent voices complement Beam as he asks his past lover Maryanne if she remembers “the tree by the river, when [they] were seventeen,” together composing a lush landscape of adolescence. The slide guitar on “Half Moon” creates the album’s most folky sound, and its lyrics are drenched with tender passion as Beam asks to die if he loses the woman he adores. These concrete stories and emotions recall Beam’s previous work—and it would serve him best to remain with the style.
Ironically, the two most interesting tracks on the album are Beam’s most novel. On “Big Burned Hand,” Beam saunters with funky bass, hot saxophone, and electronically-singed vocals. Closing the album is arguably its best tune; “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me” boasts a full horn section and a guitar solo that drips with low-fi hiss and distortion. Beam’s voice then intertwines with breathy vocals that twirl the piece 180 degrees. The track ends in a mesh of electric and acoustic sounds, a metaphor for the tangled style of the entire album.
While a mostly experimental album punctuated by some success, Kiss’s mediocre performance shouldn’t discourage Bostonians from returning to the House of Blues this spring. Beam is guaranteed to revive his stronger past work and with his folk will once again breathe redemptive life into this city, delivering the people of Boston.