Iron & Wine started as a lo-fi folk project with a four-track recorder and has been continuously developing his sound ever since. On the most recent two releases, the instrumentation and songwriting has become more varied, incorporatinghorns and African influences.
Here Sam Beam turns to jazz for inspiration. This initially seemed surprising – I never thought that my first reaction to an Iron & Wine song would be “HEY BIG SPENDER” (‘Lovers’ Revolution’) – yet Ghost on Ghost in fact feels like a perfectly natural continuation of Beam’s development. As with each previous release, he executes the music brilliantly – helped in no small part by his voice – so that questions of authenticity are not a problem. He doesn’t try to claim he is part of the ‘40s bebop scene, he simply borrows ideas to lead his folk-based sound in new directions. So when the hyperactive drums and erratic trombone solo enter halfway through ‘Lovers’ Revolution’, the change doesn’t appear at all forced; it is the sound of a man who appears to be able toperfect any stylehe turns his hand to and who can make it entirely his own.
Beam appears to be enjoying himself on Ghost on Ghost, which he described as a “reward to myself after the way I went about making the last few”. At times he sounds like Sinatra, singing with a similar weightlessness and a sense of ease, mirrored in the music as the new influences lighten the overall tone.
Despite the strong romantic themes, Beam avoids descending into the sentimentalism of much vocal-led jazz of the ‘40s and ‘50s due to his impressive lyrical imagery. Ghost on Ghost is mostly concerned with a couple’s relationship, but Beam doesn’t write the shallow, generic love lyrics which are so popular at the moment.
He gives his stories backgrounds, proper emotions and real characters. He recycles old themes of love and longing in new ways, as he himself acknowledges on ‘Low Light Buddy of Mine’: “there’s new fruit humming in the old fruit trees”.
Even when the meanings are not entirely clear, the sound and rhythm of the lines help lend a certain understanding (“the Barstow boys buckeyes in the shadow of the moon”). The overall achievement of Ghost on Ghost is astonishing and, five albums in, Iron & Wine is still simultaneously evolving and surpassing expectations.