Sam Beam’s exquisite voice and ability to write heartbreaking songs have been the backbone of Iron And Wine since the stunning 2002 debut The Creek Drank The Cradle. Since then, Beam has used three studio albums, several EPs, the occasional single and a few live albums to create an arc of creativity and style for Iron And Wine. From the eerie melancholy of The Creek Drank The Cradle, Beam has moved Iron And Wine into an audio time capsule, a non-ironic slice of 70s FM pop tunes. His latest creation, Ghost On Ghost is another step forward in that quest.
Beam claims his last two albums, The Shepard’s Dog (2007) and Kiss Each Other Clean (2011) were recorded with an ”anxious tension” he wanted to move away from. Helping him lighten up is a stable of musicians anyone would salivate over. Rob Burger of Tin Hat Trio. Steve Bernstein, Tony Scherr, Kenny Wollesen and Briggan Kraus from Sex Mob, Bob Dylan bassist Tony Garnier, jazz drummer Brian Blade, cellist Marika Hughes, Maxim Moston and Doug Wieselman from Antony And The Johnsons, just to name a few. With this impressive roster, Iron And Wine put forth their most radio friendly album to date.
Wait? Radio friendly? Isn’t that a bad term? Won’t the ever-fickle “indie” community shun the upbeat sing-along nature of Ghost On Ghost? Well, I don’t think Beam cares and, really, neither should you. Anybody who remembers sitting in the car with pop FM radio playing in the seventies or eighties, will be enthralled with Ghost On Ghost. Anyone who didn’t grow up that way will still be unable to refuse the infectious pop goldmine that Iron And Wine offer up.
Ghost On Ghost may be firmly rooted in pop, but Iron And Wine’s trademark traditional folk is still there, embellished by touches of jazz and even funk. Beam’s lyrics and delivery fall somewhere in the James Taylor/Paul Simon/Beach Boys arena. The opening track “Caught In The Briars” is full on James Taylor, with a possible touch of Cat Stevens and even some early Chicago. “Joy” brings the Beach Boys style, while “Low Light Buddy Of Mine” is an 70s easy pop tune built atop funk drums. In theory this shouldn’t work, but Beam and his band of merry men make it happen.
Don’t get me wrong with all the nods to past musicians. Nothing here smacks of mimicry and Beam is entirely too talented to be sound like a rip off. What I’m getting at is a vibe, an aesthetic that Ghost On Ghost has. A simpler time, a time when pop music wasn’t the enemy and you could drive for long stretches hearing great tunes on the radio to sing along with. “Grace For Saints And Ramblers” is a perfect example. The drums swing, the lyrics are relaxed and fun. You hear this tune and you want to be driving in the sunshine. “Grace For Saints And Ramblers” is John Denver if he recorded Joni Mitchell covers.
“Winter Prayers” is a complete showstopper. The song contains a little of the Iron And Wine melancholy but taken into a Simon & Garfunkel direction. “Winter Prayers” has an almost cheerful attitude about the end of a relationship. To hear Iron And Wine write something like shows that Beam is not interested in being a one trick pony. “New Mexico’s No Breeze” is another showstopper, taking cues from early Fleetwood Mac.
If one was to push an issue with Ghost On Ghost, it would be that its strength can also be its weakness. As a child of the seventies, this album reawakens memories long dormant. Anybody who doesn’t come from that era or doesn’t have a healthy love for Americana pop might view Ghost On Ghost as a disappointment. Those fans looking for another album of mope might snicker at the sunshine and Mary Tyler Moore happiness.
For me this isn’t an issue. Not only due to my love of good, solid, pop tunes, but also the fact that Sam Beam decided to make the record he wanted to. Artists taking risks is how wonderful albums are born. Never by catering to the genre. Ghost On Ghost is all at once a stroll down memory lane as well as a giant step forward for Sam Beam’s songwriting.