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Sam Beam, the man behind the stage name Iron and Wine, starts his new album, The Shepherd’s Dog, with a practical joke. The first few bars of the first track are of a lone acoustic guitar – quiet, scratchy, low-fi, simple. It sounds like the beginning of any song off of his first two albums, both of which mostly consisted of the original four-track demos Beam recorded in his bedroom and sent to Sub Pop at the urging of Jonathan Poneman.
Then, after ten or fifteen second of these familiar, quiet, soothing sounds, the album jumps to life: enter stereo sound, enter layered guitars, enter drums, enter some backing vocals and piano. Enter a new kind of Iron and Wine.
It’s the best kind of new album from an artist that you love. Most of the core themes and sounds that you find irresistible are there, but it’s also not a carbon copy of the band’s earlier efforts. The essence of Iron and Wine isn’t lost in the layers: the largely narrative, touching, sometimes sentimental lyrics. The whispered melancholy voice of Beam and unshakable Southern Gothic feel. The folky sound and gritty realist imagery that can only come from a big guy with a full beard and a guitar.
On the other hand, you can also see Beam exploring and trying new things. Growing and learning and having some fun. Although the first three or four songs sound like vintage Iron and Wine with the added help of studio equipment and a band, the album becomes increasingly experimental with each track. And Beam isn’t just trying out new mixes and new instruments – he’s trying on different genres and sounds: rockabilly, Afro-pop, even reggae (I think).
Is that a xylophone? you’ll ask yourself. Are those bongos? Is this beat Caribbean? Am I actually dancing to an Iron and Wine song, when usually I curl up into a ball and think about days past and loves lost, a single tear rolling down my face and onto a gothically Southern quilt, threadbare and softened by so many restless nights?
Well, you will dance. Try to listen to “The Devil Never Sleeps” without at least tapping your feet.
Don’t get me wrong. As much as I enjoy the new sounds and the increased energy of this album, there’s a piece of me – the crying on a quilt softened with age piece of me – that misses the utterly sad and quiet almost spooky moods of Iron and Wine’s work up to now. Unlike his first two efforts, this is not an album that you can put on to go to sleep to, or write to, or drive across the Midwest in the dead of winter to. But it’s still wonderful – a natural progression for Beam – and I’m sure I’ll find other things to do while I listen to it. Perhaps drive through the Midwest in the first days of spring.
Here’s a clip of “The Devil Never Sleeps” (the danceable one) on Letterman: