The seven studio LPs and EPs Sam Beam has made as Iron & Wine have unfolded like a game of musical telephone, each pivoting away from their predecessor so deftly, so seamlessly, that — despite the fact that we started out, a decade ago, with whiskery bedroom folk — we now find ourselves in jazz-fusiony, kinda-sorta Bee Gees-y territory. And somehow, that doesn’t seem like too abrupt or terrible of a thing.
Tracing the genealogy of Ghost on Ghost, the new record, its plaid polyester vibe even begins to seem a little bit inevitable. Beam’s layering up of anything besides tickled guitar and hushed vocals began two releases in, on 2004′s Our Endless Numbered Days, with some pitter-pat drums; The Shepherd’s Dog, in 2007, introduced a reinforced backbone of percussion, strings and layered vocals not always his own; in 2011 Kiss Each Other Clean brought both noodlier song structures and more distorted instrumentals while aiming not only for radio-friendliness but a certain early ’70s rock/pop pedigree.
“Caught in the Briars” opens the latest permutation with a bright acoustic guitar tangle, scoops up drums and horns and rattly percussion and clatters away into an uncertain darkness out of which “The Desert Babbler” descends, turning and twinkling like a mirrorball. Throughout the album, Beam’s six-string — once the constant companion to his dusky croon — is almost completely edged out by swooning strings, gooey bass and come-hither piano. And horns! This isn’t the first time Iron & Wine has employed a brass section, but it’s put to especially great, greasy use here, skronking and blaring, sometimes — like on “Lovers’ Revolution” — stealing the spotlight altogether.
Lyrically, the songs are largely word-collages cut from a comfortingly standard Beam stock — children, lovers, sinners, semi-apocalyptic landscapes, oblique references to various states, unusual vegetation, cats, birds of various species. Meaning tends to be cumulative and floats somewhere in the ether, best apprehended at a slightly-angled remove. For instance: while making out, fully-clothed, on a weird old couch in someone’s mom’s basement, in either 1974 or 2013, a personally untested scenario that nevertheless seems to be the ideal context for the record’s maximum appreciation. Have fun, kids. Beam sure is.