What do you do if you admire a musician’s skill and craft, yet can’t quite get behind the results of that craft? Thus is the problem with Iron & Wine, the brainchild of Sam Beam, now on its fifth full-length record and featuring an ever-expanding sound that seems to go deeper into the past. Ghost on Ghost finds Iron & Wine turning into something of a modern Van Morrison, complete with smooth horns, jaunty folk tunes, and a flair for nostalgia.
Beam’s been pushing the sound of his band towards this for some time. Originally a lo-fi project of pure minimalism and Appalachian aesthetics, Iron & Wine has now blossomed into a purveyor of ’70s smooth rock, taking on that dated California sound with the gusto of a man possessed with the soul of Jackson Browne or Jim Croce. Opener “Caught in the Briars” starts out promising, with a smooth-cat jazz opening that abruptly ends right when it gets interesting. Instead, we’re treated to smooth acoustic lines and a tune straight out of Astral Weeks. While Beam sounds comfortable enough with this full band sound, something seems to be missing, such as the presence of a memorable song.
The first half of Ghost on Ghost would’ve been a Top Ten Billboard hit in 1974, filled to the brim with horns, electric piano, and soaring background vocals. At times, it directly mimics famous songs of the past, such as the nod to “Son of a Preacher Man” on “Low Life Buddy of Mine.” Other times, Beam gets a bit frisky, as is the case with “Grace for Saints and Ramblers,” a nice little ditty that rambles and swaggers like a lost AM radio classic. But, those moments are few and far between. It’s not that these songs are bad, or Beam has lost his way – On the contrary, everything here is impeccably played and produced. It’s just that Beam’s delivery is so gentle, it needs music strong enough to make him interesting. Those early lo-fi records were great because the shabby recordings accentuated Beam’s voice. Even his EP with Calexico worked because the band was strong enough to complement those soft vocals. But here, with everything at an even tempo, Iron & Wine’s sound becomes background music.
Things pick up as Ghost on Ghost winds down. “Winter Prayers” is the best song on the record, with a minimal structure that serves to accentuate Beam’s strengths rather than his weaknesses. Yes, it harkens back to his early work, but it’s not a straight retread of his lo-fi days. Instead, it’s how Iron & Wine used to be, just filtered through more modern production techniques. And, amazingly, it serves to draw notice, not just because his band isn’t playing like it’s trying to get your attention on a New Orleans street corner, but because the song is so damned good. The positive vibes continue with “Lover’s Revolution,” another jazzy tune that brings to mind early Tom Waits. Finally, there’s the closer, “Baby’s Center Stage,” a lovely piano-based ballad that ends the album on a positive note.
Beam has the talent and production prowess to make a strong record. But, the choices on Ghost and Ghost seem to point out his flaws rather than his strengths. There are some really great songs on here, but too many that fail to grab hold of the listener. Here’s hoping that Beam continues to play with his sound and find that right balance of experimenting with what works and sticking to his strengths.