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Iron & Wine
Ghost On Ghost James Skinner , April 18th, 2013 11:07

"You have your three big things that you can talk about, basically, if you're going to write something that actually means something to you as a human being, which is Love, God and Death," said Sam Beam in an interview with Paste Magazine in 2007.

The interview was to promote The Shepherd's Dog, his third album as Iron & Wine, wherein the sparse, intimate sound he had previously established was cast aside in favour of the sweeping arrangements and gleaming production that has characterised his output ever since. Still, it is not difficult to trace a through-line in Beam's evolution as an artist: 2005 EPs Woman King and Calexico collaboration In the Reins signposted a shift toward a more full-bodied sound, while those "three big things" he spoke of have consistently informed his musings over the years, in a manner that has gradually become more and more oblique.

Ghost On Ghost is the fifth Iron & Wine full-length, viewed by Beam as "a reward to myself after the way I went about making the last few." This is a curious statement, as the record doesn't initially feel or sound too far-removed from 2011's Kiss Each Other Clean, nor The Shepherd's Dog. The instrumentation is lush and expansive, song titles like 'Grace for Saints And Ramblers' are quintessentially Iron & Wine, and the sinners, naked boys, morning birds and country fairs that appear on the opening 'Caught in the Briars' are lyrical staples for Beam at this point - ones he has contemplated plenty across his discography.

Yet, when Beam refers to an "anxious tension" that he felt was present on the preceding, it isn't difficult to see what he's getting at. Notably, the closing song on Kiss Each Other Clean was called 'Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me', and found him firing off oxymoronic couplets as his backing band rumbled and swelled behind him. The introduction to 'Caught in the Briars' consists of a wandering bass-line set against clattering percussion and noise, before a nimble acoustic guitar shape cuts it open and major-key horns herald the arrival of the song proper. If the intention was to segue between the two records, Beam certainly nails it here.

The rest of the album unfolds for the most part at a leisurely pace, Beam revelling in the svelte musicianship around him. Players include members of Antony and the Johnsons, Tin Hat Trio and Bob Dylan's group, who retain the 70s AM Rock approximated on its predecessor, though Ghost On Ghost furrows deeper into the soulful sounds that constitute a hallmark of that era. Backing vocals swoop and glide over brass and strings, while its songs are replete with allusions to light, colour and the cities and hinterlands of America, from Sante Fe to Chicago and Barstow to Milwaukee. Lyrically, he is on impressionistic, ranging form; imagery is repeated and recycled throughout, and even the most straightforward songs here could be unravelled in a number of different ways.

"I'll only lie when you don't want the truth / I'm only frightened 'cause you finally gave me something to lose," he sings on the quiet, affecting 'Joy', in what could be a paean to a newborn (Beam is a father of five) a declaration of love to a partner, a frank meditation on aging, or perhaps all three. The briars that pop up time and again constitute the LP's clearest motif, hinting at its wider theme of constraint, both personal and political. It tips toward the latter on the fiery 'Lovers' Revolution', a jazzy, propulsive behemoth of a song that is by far the most aggressive thing on here. "We were snatching at a war baby's bottle just to trade it for change," he notes, one in a series of vignettes that rail against apathy: "But now it's come to pass / That every eye beneath the mountain saw the smoke, but no-one heard the blast / That no one knew the arm was broken, although everybody signed the cast."

'Lovers' Revolution' was the first song made available from the record, and it is remarkable how much more sense it makes in the context of Ghost On Ghost as a whole - despite sounding very little like the rest of it. Likewise, the sheer polish on display throughout is light years away from the creaking tape reels and whispered delivery of his 2002 debut The Creek Drank The Cradle, yet, in terms of mood, craft and theme - of Love, God and Death - very much of a piece with it.

That this polish and shine doesn't detract from the record is attributable to both the longtime collaboration of Beam and producer Brian Deck and the burgeoning confidence of Beam as a singer. 'Baby Center Stage' is the latest in a long line of sumptuous album-closers from Iron & Wine, a doozy of a tune that again seems to address parenthood and the perils therein, and features the best vocal performance of his career: come the chorus, his assured tenor breaks into a billowing falsetto that expresses tenderness and concern with every note.

It works as both a finale to a record that feels looser and more relaxed than Beam's previous and a soulful counterpoint to the chaos and disorder of 'Lovers' Revolution'. Ghost On Ghost might not be definitive - Beam gives off the impression that a genuine modern classic is not yet beyond him, something a tightening of focus might help him achieve - but this is big, beautiful music all the same. That he makes it sound so effortless is all the more impressive.