Iron & Wine

Kiss Each Other Clean

Rating: 3.3/5.0

Label: Warner Bros.

Sam Beam has stated that he wanted Kiss Each Other Clean to sound like the radio-ready pop songs of the early ’70s. That it does, at least sporadically; elsewhere, the album wanders in various directions, using synthesizer, horns, distorted vocals and various other studio effects. Parts of it even apparently owe a debt to jazz, blues and prog rock. It’s unarguably the most atypical record Beam has released – even more so than 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog – and it marks a major stylistic shift from the gentle folk with which Beam is most commonly associated. Quite simply, it damn near makes The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days sound like the work of an entirely different musician.

Whether this new style fully succeeds is open to debate. Even after spending a few weeks listening to Kiss Each Other Clean, I can’t decide whether it’s a work of unpredictable brilliance or a disorganized mess. Probably it falls somewhere in between. There is a mesmerizing vocal and instrumental consistency to much of the album; like lyrical masterpiece “The Trapeze Swinger” before them, “Walking Far From Home,” “Tree By the River,” “Half Moon,” “Godless Brother in Love” and “Glad Man Singing” make frequent use background vocals and harmonies to accentuate Beam’s narratives. Equally striking is Beam’s singing; absent are the whispery, breathy, sometimes frail vocals of the first two Sub Pop albums, replaced by a more muscular and assured vocal delivery. The imagery is still prototypical Beam – lots of references to the past, memories, religion, life and death – though at times it tends to be far more surreal than before; the nightmarish visions of opening track “Walking Far From Home” include bridges collapsing, birds falling from the sky, a car crash, a praying widow and a “millionaire pissing on the lawn.”

It’s that pesky, sometimes perplexing other half where fans’ opinion will likely be divided. In a similar way that The Age of Adz found another previously folk-based musician strolling into weirder, electronic pastures, pieces of Kiss Each Other Clean easily rank as the most bizarre stuff Beam’s put to tape. “Me and Lazarus” is perhaps the most consistent of this new breed of Beam song; its synth and stately saxophone give the song personality as Beam imaginatively recasts the biblical figure as a mad dancing punk. But that dubby/trippy approach soon wears thin and, worse, starts to sound a little bit like a lark or a novelty. “Monkeys Uptown” and “Rabbit Will Run” are synth-dripping affairs that sound artificial and too manufactured – the latter song also contains distracting amounts of heavy percussion – while the funky, slightly sleazy horn that opens “Big Burned Hand” is soon overshadowed by the song’s overly distorted vocals. Unique songs one and all, certainly, though it’s debatable as to whether many listeners will return to these songs that frequently.

The fact that Beam managed to release his least immediately accessible album on a major label is a nice bit of irony and, aside from those oh-so-smooth songs mentioned earlier, Kiss Each Other Clean is a difficult listen and hardly as warmly inviting as Iron & Wine’s previous work. Still, Beam deserves credit for at least pushing his music in new directions, even if it occasionally leads to synth and sax-laden dead ends that, much like the wistful narrator of “Tree By the River,” might make some listeners dreamily nostalgic for the past.

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