Though he hasn't made a record as Iron & Wine in nearly four years, Sam Beam has hardly been dormant. The former University of Miami film professor's music has been featured on both soundtracks (I'm Not There, Twilight) and compilations (Around the Well, Norfolk), and he's gradually transformed from mysterious, retiring folkie to festival regular, a college-dorm favorite, and now, a songwriter with the backing of a major label. Beam is the rare artist that bridges the oft-unpassable musical gap between frat boys and fickle hipsters, and while this crossover appeal has consistently increased his profile over the years, Kiss Each Other Clean feels like an arrival — his most interesting statement to date.
Beam's come a long way since the whisper-soft lullabyes of his 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle. Indeed, any song here would sound wildly out of place on that record. Whereas early I&W albums practically demanded a Nick Drake or Elliott Smith reference, Kiss Each Other Clean instead invites comparisons to Yeasayer and Stevie Wonder. These new sonic touchstones aren't so much album-length inspirations as influences that appear in quick bursts — the rhythmic accompaniment of "Rabbit Will Run," the funky organ flourish of "Monkeys Uptown," the horn chart on "Big Burned Hand" and "Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me." Beam has taken the logical creative step, expanding beyond even the more adventurous (in terms of his catalogue, at least) songs of The Shepherd's Dog.
Kiss Each Other Clean won't shock listeners, though, and Beam doesn't stand to lose the fans that have stuck with him. Embracing new sounds is healthy for artistic evolution, and it suits this band well. In October, Beam told Spin that this album "sounds like the music people heard in their parent's car growing up…early-to-mid '70s FM, radio-friendly music." It's a solid characterization. He's essentially describing James Taylor there, which is apt, considering he's posed to become the Taylor of his generation. He doesn't yet have his Sweet Baby James, but Kiss Each Other Clean suggests it won't be far off.