In an interview about the fourth Iron & Wine studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean, Sam Beam told SPIN he’d planned to make his major label debut, “more of a focused pop record.” To his ears Kiss “sounds like the music people heard in their parent’s car growing up… that early-to-mid-’70s FM, radio-friendly music.” That, and he experiments with “straight-up jazz, blues, and African elements.” (Stuart Bogie of Antibalas and TV On The Radio added clarinet and saxophone, there a number of synthesized details, someone decided slap-happy bass was a good idea.) All of this seems alright in theory, an artist pushing his craft, expanding his aesthetic. The strange part of it, though, is that Beam said, via all of these new accents, he was hoping to give Kiss “more of a live feel.” Strange, because it sounds more constructed and (over, over) produced than his past records. It’s a bit like Sufjan’s recent folksy electronics, only less arresting.
If you haven’t heard the entire album, you’ve likely had a listen to “Tree By The River,” opener “Walking Far From Home,” and a number of the songs in a live setting. They sounded best in that live setting. At their core, many of the 10 songs on Kiss Each Other Clean are good ones, but the more-is-more production tends to mar and bury that fact, from the vocal filters and fuzz of the opener to the various ’70s grooves, DJ scratching, busy electro squiggles, “Rabbit Will Run” chirps, and the long-hair skronk of closer “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me.” All said, The Shepherd’s Dog’s a better example of playing with texture, new instrumentation, though even as we said in our Premature Evaluation of that one: “The most breathtakingly immediate tracks are those when the sound’s most naked.” Now that labels have become less important to the dissemination of music, folks don’t generally make a fuss when an indie (or indie-like) band jumps from an indie to a major; but with Kiss Each Other Clean, it really does sound like Beam decides to use that “major label money” to go for it in the studio, when all the guy really needs is his voice, those lyrics, his guitar. All’s not lost: Standouts include the pensive, soaring (and gorgeous) “Godless Brother In Love,” with Doveman on guest vocals, “Tree By The River,” and the gentle (female-backed) doo-wop of “Half Moon.” And, despite its ADD production, “Walking Far From Home”‘s lyrics and melodies win out.
Whether or not you like Kiss may very well come down to which Beam you like best — the early less-is-more bedroom troubadour or the more recent college-rock friendly hacky sacker. If you’re one of the latter, devil’s sticks fans you now have your theme, and it’s called “Big Burned Hand.” Middle-aged hippie still pissed at the “man”? Try “Monkeys Uptown” the next time you update your political blog. Etc.
Kiss Each Other Clean is out 1/25 via Warner Bros. You can stream the entire album at TeamCoco.com. (As the exclusive stream suggests, Iron & Wine are appearing soon on Conan — 1/24.)