I’ve been an Iron & Wine fan ever since I heard the percussive rain-like sounds of Sam Beam’s fourth EP Woman King years ago. It took my Pear Jam-loving musician husband Dan a little while to catch up but nowadays he’s probably the more obvious enthusiast out of the two of us. Iron & Wine transitioned us from the music of our early twenties, bestowing us with a deeper appreciation for the simpler Americana sound that is indicative of the singer-songwriter of our generation.
Dan pre-ordered the latest album this past spring. As usual, I am more cautious. I always prefer the old instead of the new, the past over the present, the mature cheddar rather than the mild. I have this innate feeling of suspicion every time new albums from my favourite bands or singers loom on the horizon. Can they match up to expectations after the brilliance of past releases? Can they incorporate varying musical influences without compromising their style and individuality? I haven’t even bothered with the last but one Iron & Wine album, Kiss Each Other Clean. It’s just too different; and yes, I am resistant to change!
So Ghost on Ghost arrives, and almost immediately Dan starts listening to it constantly. Initially, I am not impressed. Lyrically, Ghost on Ghost is Sam Beam, both in the flowing poetry and the whispering vocals. Musically it’s a different kettle of fish, and this is what I’m struggling to come to terms with. My favourite Iron & Wine album is The Creek Drank the Cradle; and the smooth structured 70’s style of Ghost on Ghost feels so far from the raw, earlier Americana. The contrast between these two is stark. It’s like that jolt of shock I’d have if I opened my closet one morning to discover that the worn hippie dresses hanging there have been replaced by trendy trouser suits. Or the consternation you’d experience returning to your simple, rural log cabin at the end of the day to find an enormous RV parked in the spot where your wooden shack used to be.
For me, a grudging appreciation of Ghost on Ghost doesn’t happen until I hear most of it performed live a few weeks ago at an Iron & Wine gig in Manchester. Dan and I sit motionless on the front row and watch this cohesive show play out in front of us, featuring a talented band. The sounds of the new album’s songs are impressive when performed live: smooth, fun, jazzy, verging on easy listening music but slipping back to folk whenever you start to worry. The best part of the gig by far is when the band exits the stage, leaving just Sam Beam with his Taylor. Here he gives us the Iron & Wine “buffet section”, as he calls it. This acoustic interlude is a contrasting breath of fresh outdoor air in the midst of the smoky sophisticated perfection that characterises the evening.
Ghost on Ghost is a bearded festival-goer who’s cut off his locks and donned a business suit. This is earthy but somehow posh Americana, no longer wistful or longing but fully in control, a tiny bit tatty around the edges yet polished shiny clean. It’s too bland to deserve the experimental tag, but it is good quality, diverse music and will no doubt appeal to a wider crowd than earlier albums did. It’s the latest installation in Iron & Wine’s patchwork musical journey, and Sam Beam isn’t finished yet. I do wonder where he will go from here. I can’t help but hope that someday he’ll move away from the jazz club and return to the woods.
A short study of the interesting contrast between past and present:
“The Trapeze Swinger” – 2006
“Grace for Saints and Ramblers” – 2013
Standouts from Ghost on Ghost that you might want to hear include: “Low Light Buddy of Mine”, for its funky beat — or so say the drummers in my house, our ten-year-old twin sons — and “Joy”, a nostalgic murmuring treat of a song, sung like a lullaby.