Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
Record Label: Warner Brothers
Release Date: January 25, 2011
This was a user review published several years prior to my becoming staff.
Kiss Each Other Clean is the fourth studio album by folk rock craftsman Sam Beam, who is the sole creative force behind Iron & Wine. After releasing a pair of albums and a few EPs that consisted largely of Beam’s acoustic strumming and hushed melodies, he drafted numerous other musicians for the politically tense The Shepherd's Dog, released in 2007.
The Shepherd’s Dog was generally very well received by critics, and began to slowly expand Beam’s audience. This was helped greatly by the inclusion of that album’s closing track “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” in the blockbuster movie Twilight and on the accompanying best-selling soundtrack.
Like many previously independent artists who were included on that and subsequent soundtracks, Iron & Wine’s first “post-Twilight” album comes on a major label for the first time, one of many things which might make longtime fans nervous about Beam’s direction.
Veteran fans need not worry, however, as Beam is as good here as he has ever been, and arguably better. Album opener “Walking Far from Home”—which has been floating around on the internet for a few months—acts as a manifesto for the album’s thematic elements and displays one of Beam’s finest melodies to date.
Beam has always had a distinctively vivid writing style, and that has certainly not changed on Kiss Each Other Clean. The album’s opening track makes this clear with lines such as “Saw a car crash in the country / Where the prayers run like weeds along the road.” Kiss Each Other Clean is a record that deals with the themes of youth, faith, doubt and love in one fell swoop, all in a conspicuously pastoral setting.
“Tree by the River” is a great example of this. It is essentially a tale of adolescent romance presumably set in the South Carolina countryside in which Beam grew up. “I recall the sun in our faces / Stuck and leaning on braces / And being strangers to change” perfectly describes what he is singing about, and gives the listener a sense of his meaning as well.
Given what has been said so far, anyone who has listened to Iron & Wine previously might at this point be wondering what exactly has changed on this album. Just as “Walking Far from Home” should quell doubts about the record’s quality within the first minute, it should also answer that question in the same amount of time. For the first time in his career Beam has made a record that really sounds like it was made by a band, not just by some guy with a guitar, maybe with a few other musicians included for good measure. This record is very musically diverse, incorporating everything from a horn section to a harp.
Beam also uses all sorts of bizarre-sounding guitar effects and even some electronic elements on Kiss Each Other Clean. This may lead some listeners to draw parallels to fellow folkie Sufjan Steven’s latest album The Age of Adz, released late last year, in which Stevens also used electronic elements to compliment what was generally a folk rock album otherwise. Beam also has become a master at multi-tracking his own voice, much in the same vein as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
Finally, there are moments on the record, such as the last part of seven-minute closing epic “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me,” that go for a “fuzzed-out” or “cluttered” feel, bringing to mind so-called “fuzz-folk” artists such as Neutral Milk Hotel or The Microphones that saw their heyday at the beginning of the last decade.
In the end, however, what makes this album a great one is undeniably Beam’s lyrics. A few lines from album highlight “Rabbit Will Run” shows what attracts listeners to Iron & Wine’s strange poetry: “We all live in grace at the end of the day / And we've armed all the children we thought we'd betrayed / And I still have a prayer, but too few occasions to pray.”