Max Bell once turned wine into water.
Any artist worth a damn is willing to diverge from what they’ve successfully created. They’re willing to explore, to branch off into the uncomfortable and unfamiliar, to challenge themselves and their audience. But any departure into uncharted territory holds significant potential for missteps, as well as the potential for great artistic growth and payoff.
Examples: Big Boi’s latest album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, cemented the fact that the familiar funky formula of Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty was wholly navigable territory for Daddy Fat Sax. On the other hand, it also proved that Billy Ocean wasn’t exactly suited to rhyme with Phantogram. His departure from the familiar resulted in a disjointed and all around strange, strange project. Big Boi hadn’t managed to retain all that made his first solo effort so successful. Essentially, he lost himself. Or, at the very least, it’s fair to say that the majority of his attempts to collaborate with the indie B team just didn’t mesh well. That said, I still respect the attempt, the fish and grits and all that pimp shit.
Kanye’s 808’s definitely threw all Kanye fans for a loop. But he’d given us three albums where the sampling, the production, was raised each and every time. He needed to strip things down, to go somewhere else. I played the shit out of Bon Iver’s lost-love opus of “cabin in the woods” isolation, For Emma, Forever Ago. Yet when the next album came out, I didn’t get the same set of songs with different lyrics and few key changes. It was a wholly new Bon Iver, yet still, somehow, Bon Iver
Cue the Iron and Wine. Sam Beam’s one of those singer/songwriters who could’ve made the same poignant picking and whispery crooning bedroom, almost southern-gothic folk of his first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle,ten, fifteen, twenty times over.
Though he would’ve had a devoted following forever attesting to his “consistency” to make one solid album after another, the reviews and critical response to those potential albums would’ve eventually used the same statement to argue his lack of artistic growth and the over all blandness of his catalogue. Granted, he is very good a plucking and whispering/singing about love and death and God and the afterlife, among other somber things Wood Allen will never stop making movies about.
Yet Beam, who in my opinion does deserve the word ‘artist’ next to his name, has continued to change, to venture into newer sonic terrain while evolving as a lyricist, reinventing his brand of folk and, at times, nearly abandoning it entirely. Some will argue that he expanded his sound on Our Endless Numbered Days (true to an extent), and some will say it started when he began working with Calexico for their In the Reins EP.
But for me, Beam’s experimentation as a solo artist really took hold on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog. Here Beam began let his voice go wild, to break the whisper and adopt a much stronger vocal presence. And the sound on this album was wholly different from anything he’d done before. There are departures into dub (“Wolves (Son of the Shepherd’s Dog)”)—it’s more reverent and refreshing than kitschy—flutes, organs, vibraphones, and more instruments outside of the standard acoustic guitar.
Then, on his last proper album, Kiss Each Other Clean, Beam really pushed the envelope. Some might argue it was too far. “Rabbit Will Run” feels like Beam simultaneously channeling the spirit of Phil Collins and Herbie Hancock circa Head Hunters. It works surprisingly well. “Monkeys Uptown” finds him putting on a Beck suit to go over his flannel and corduroys. It kind of works. And then a track like “You Fake Name is Good Enough for Me” gets a little too out there, a little too funky and expansive for Beam to pull it off, to make it wholly his song.
What I’m saying is this: Beam keeps trying things, and most of them work for me. Thus, I keep listening.
So, it shouldn’t surprise me that the first single of his upcoming record Ghost on Ghost, “Lovers’ Revolution” (below the jump, I promise) is a near perfect step in another direction. And yet it does. Why? Because he has found a way to make this track all his own while simultaneously synthesizing his influences and making something new.
It’s some of Beam’s best writing to date (“No matter how we chewed we’d be choking on a compromise”). It’s also musically leaps and bounds from his first record. I could imagine Tom Waits growling his gravelly, whiskey soaked croon over this jazzy/bluesy, dark, smoke-filled night-club suite. The bass line, the piano, the horns, the call and response, the “oohs” of the back up female vocalists—it’s sexy and stygian. And Beam, though softer in his delivery, evokes the vocal stylings of Van Morrison. To me “Lovers’ Revolution” is really “Moondance” circa 2013. It makes you think that maybe Iron & Wine has only really just arrived.