Even when Sam Beam was recording Iron & Wine songs on a four-track at home, with just his voice and a stringed instrument or two, he had the core of a ’70s-style folk-rock troubadour. It just took a few years before he developed the chops to move past the stripped-down, sketchy style that first won him fans. With 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, Beam fleshed out the Iron & Wine sound with elements of atmospheric country-rock and sinewy worldbeat, and now he fleshes out that sound further on Kiss Each Other Clean, which adds offbeat percussion, spirited guitar solos, bleating saxophone, funky electric piano, and even fleeting appearances of flute and harp. It’s like 10 Paul Simon solo LPs fused into one misshapen but curiously beautiful lump.
The songs on Kiss Each Other Clean suit the sound. The album opens with the slow-stepping “Walking Far From Home,” on which Beam describes the wonders he’s seen, with a barely contained urgency. From there, Iron & Wine nods to African folktales via multiple songs and lines about the nature of animals, while songs like the slinky “Me And Lazarus” and the heavenly “Godless Brother In Love” grapple with faith. Kiss Each Other Clean is about the big subjects: what we believe, why we believe it, and what becomes of us once we realize we might be wrong. The music reflects the excitement of a man who realizes he’s onto something; Beam’s vocals have never been so strong, and the bountiful instrumentation marks a musician eager to show off the range of options he’s discovered. More importantly, the album is catchy, with songs like “Tree By The River” sounding as cooing and seductive as Fleetwood Mac—another band that knew how to make tough subject matter into pretty pop.