Whilst I usually try to rise above such stock comparisons of indie musicians, I’d forgive anyone who states that Samuel Beam reminds them of an early Sufjan Stevens.
Both men are known for their banjo-based strains of modern folk music and both have hit the mainstream over the past few years; Sufjan for his over-ambitious one-album-per-state project, Samuel for his Postal Service cover and notorious addition to the Twighlight soundtrack. Both maintain a slightly eerie Christian overtone to their music and both have moved away from their lo-fi roots to a more heavily produced, layered style of music lately.
But Samuel Beam has always favored understatement over Sufjan Stevens’ everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach. So, when Mr. Stevens discovered neon and overdosed on electric drums last year, Samuel Beam simply upped his band members and the percussion section of his arrangements, with distinctive results.
As with Stevens’ ‘Age of Adz’, ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’, the new album from Iron & Wine, marks an evident change of aesthetic without smacking of bandwagon-jumping. Some of the concoctions on the record - such as ’Me and Lazarus’ and ’Monkeys Uptown’ - are slightly jarring, but perhaps this is the price a modern folk musician pays for vying for originality.
A deliciously surprising moment when these innovations pay off is the jazzy brass accompaniment to ‘Big Burned Hand’, which manages to echo the manic genius of Karl Blau at his best. That said, Beam ruins it slightly with the amount of distortion on the vocals, and the whole thing becomes slightly too much.
This, unfortunately, is the running theme throughout the album: it’s just slightly too much. The path from minimalism to maximalism cannot be rushed, and the rocky road can sometimes include the perilous introduction of vocal distortion where no vocal distortion should venture, and electric guitars where no electric guitars should be.
Beam doesn't always manage to make the eclectic instrumentals gel with his soulful brand of song writing. In a new musician’s shoes, “Kiss Each Other Clean” would be a bold and fascinating achievement, but Beams has his own delicately beautiful compositions to compete with, and the album never lives up to the understated passion of “Birds Stealing Bread” or the profound melancholy of “Fever Dream”.
I hope that this chaotic and intriguing offering from Iron & Wine marks the start of an experimental but well-conceived musical venture for Beams, but I can’t help but admit that the most accomplished songs on the album - ‘Godless Brother in Love’, for example - are the ones that retain Beams’ one-man-and-his-guitar trademark, and that, despite an admirable effort, this is what Iron & Wine do best.