The fifth full album by Sam Beam under the Iron And Wine name provides emphatic confirmation (if any was required) of his shift from a purveyor of hushed, fragile, lo-fi folk to an expanded, full-band concern. For the first time, his albums that fall into the latter category now outnumber those in the former, a progression also evidenced by his recent live shows which saw older material re-imagined and reworked (not always with entirely successful results). Ghost On Ghost offers no indications that he’s ready to divert his musical path anytime soon.
2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog was the break from his past, embracing a more hi-fi, produced sound, with 2011′s follow-up Kiss Each Other Clean fine-tuning many of these stylistic traits. Ghost On Ghost takes elements from both of these albums but overall sees Beam reach out in a slightly different direction (aided by a cast of 12 supporting musicians, drawn from acts as diverse as Tin Hat Trio, Antony And The Johnsons and The Jazz Passengers). Ahead of its release Beam spoke of how he wanted to move on from those albums – he calls this “his reward to himself” – and it shows clearly. The fact that it contains arguably some of his most accessible work yet is proof that he’s succeeded, yet it can’t totally hide some minor inconsistencies and flaws.
Opening track Caught In The Briars seems to be directly descended from Kiss Each Other Clean, sounding fresh, simplified and overflowing with positivity. It’s a feeling that is extended to the sunshine-infused melodies and mellow, carefree harmonies of The Desert Babbler. The brisk, radio-friendly transparency of Grace For Saints And Ramblers meanwhile is possibly the most overt pop song he’s written yet (also containing hints of late-period R.E.M. in structure and form). Joy is perhaps the track that best summarises the change in approach found on Ghost On Ghost. Reminiscent of Sunflower-era 1970s Beach Boys it sees the pace drop, and with its easy-listening, doe-eyed innocence seems to suggest that Beam is enjoying a more settled and contented frame of mind than in previous years.
Within it also lies one of the key differences of Ghost On Ghost, namely how the songs don’t have quite the same lyrical depth or richly metaphorical language found on its two predecessors. On reflection, it’s arguably a slightly poorer creation for it. The wonderful, snaking Singers And The Endless Song is the closest to emulating those albums, featuring Beam singing about how he’s “gonna tell them about the seed and the shovel, the prison and the promised land, the dream of the devil and the hurting and the healing hand”. It’s a reminder of how powerful he can be when in full flow.
Compared to the first, the second half of the album sounds slightly subdued in places. Sundown (Back In The Briars) and Winter Prayers feel a little lightweight despite their undoubted prettiness and sensitivity. The soaring, sentimental Baby Center Stage ensures an uplifting finale however, proving Beam has lost none of his ability for signing off albums in nakedly emotional style. It may not be quite as complete or redefining an artistic statement as some other albums released so far this year (Muchacho by Phosphorescent or Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant for example) but Ghost On Ghost is a relaxed, unburdened work that should please most fans and generally be viewed positively elsewhere.