For those new to this part of the musical world, Iron & Wine is the stage name of a man called Samuel Beam. He has been a professor, a painter, and occasionally he sits down to write down lovely songs in the warmth of his farmhouse. He also has a glorious beard.
With his fifth studio album, Beam decided to hit the studios in New York joined by Rob Burger of Tin Hat Trio, Tony Scherr, jazz drummer Brian Blade and many more. He decided to continue his experimentation with different types of sound. So if you had expected a typical Iron & Wine affair, be ready for a surprise. Ghost on Ghost treads lightly, like its predecessors Kiss Each Other Clean and The Shepherd’s Dog . Only, this one goes a bit further.
The central premise to Ghost on Ghost is that of a couple (hence the album work), but not always the same couple, Beam says. It is interesting to note that the self-taught guitarist usually writes the songs with music in his mind, rather than composing music around already written words.
It all begins with ‘Caught in the Briars’, a track that changes its pace from a quickly introduced beat to Beam’s happy sounding voice, and then back again. The effect is a little jarring, and this song isn’t the only one to do so. ‘Grace for Saint and Ramblers’ sounds like something that was subjected to fast forward. When stripped off the rhythm, words represent the little things in life and a couple (“But it all came down to you and I”) . But chances are you may never find that out; maybe Beam was given a stipulated time within which he had to sing it all. Or maybe it was the experimentation.
The best change here is ‘Lovers’ Revolution’. Beginning with horn, piano and jazz drumming, and then slowly moving into an instrumental interlude; the song makes it worthy of being in a Mad Men scene. This foray into the jazz side of music may be as bold as Sam Beam can get right now, but the result is definitely worth it.
The other songs on this album feature the usual type of Beam’s lyrics (he says he’s never been the one to pen down diary entry kind of songs) mingled with musical styles from various collaborators. Beam, who usually, does most of the instrument work, did not influence many tracks here. ‘New Mexico’s No Breeze’ resembles a forgotten Gerry Rafferty song, ‘Joy’ belongs in an 80’s love mixtape, and ‘Baby Center Stage’ brings this country traveling album( it travels more than your foursquare check-ins) to a fitting end.
It is good that Sam Beam isn’t shying away from experimenting. It is good that he isn’t staying exactly where he was when he began. It is definitely good that he’s ready to infuse these many musical styles, but Ghost on Ghost comes together as a neither-here-nor-there effort. Coming from the same man who gave us melodies like Flightless Bird, American Mouth (yes, that song from Twilight), the erratic change of pace here may have you reaching for the volume control. One moment you’ll be sailing in his soothing voice, the next will have you trying to grasp his quickly delivered lyrics. Good for road trips, okay as an Iron & Wine effort.
Standout tracks: ‘Lovers’ Revolution’, ‘Singers and The Endless Song’, ‘Winter Prayers’.
Rating – 3/5
PS. Here’s a cover of ‘Such Great Heights’ that he did back in 2002. Bet you didn’t know this exists.