Since releasing his debut album The Creek Drank The Cradle in 2002, Texan resident Sam Beam’s Iron And Wine has moved gradually beyond lo-fi bedroom recordings of a solo nature to a fuller, more collaborative sound. The bearded folkie’s work with Calexico, 2005’s In The Reins EP, confirmed the shift away from stripped-down material.
Even so, The Shepherd’s Dog is a wonderful surprise. A hugely varied record rooted in alt.country, it takes several listens just to appreciate how rich a tapestry it is. Veering from west African rhythms (Wolves) to deep south blues (The Devil Never Sleeps, complete with piano) via whispery, dreamy, shimmering soundscapes (Peace Beneath The City), there’s little it doesn’t have. All manner of instrumentation comes and goes, rhythms change and yet, through it all, runs a calm sense of purpose. Calexico‘s Joey Burns is amongst the top-notch guests, lending a hand in Wolves.
Beam describes this kaleidoscopic record as being inspired by political confusion. “I was really taken aback when Bush got re-elected,” he has said. But you’ll need to listen especially closely to make out the hushed, impressionistic and often opaque lyrics, for the record’s overarching musical mood is one of profound tranquility. That peace makes paying close attention to his lyrics oddly difficult. Amongst the languid musicality, lyrical themes root the human experience to the past, to the land, and to the powers that be.
Fans of Beam’s early sound needn’t be alarmed, for he hasn’t thrown the baby out with the proverbial bathwater (if he had any). His songwriting skill and methodology have always been his trump cards, however diverse the instrumentation, and he plays them exquisitely here. Like Devendra Banhart, Beam is a man whose work takes time to seep in and be appreciated and, while his ouevre is something very different, he’s equally worth devoting time to. Like Banhart, he’s well capable of delivering the unexpected.
One such moment is the stunning, group hug singalong closer and highlight amongst highlights, Flightless Bird, American Mouth. Possibly the closest junkyard Americana may get to a symphony, it even ends, Arcade Fire style, with a blast of pipe organ. Elsewhere, his multi-layered vocal delivery, especially on the happy-clappy Boy With A Coin, recalls the Nick Drake school of singing – devotees of Neil Halstead‘s Mojave 3 will love it, right down to the Rachel Goswell-like female backing vocals on Lovesong Of The Buzzard.
After hours and even days and nights snuggled up with this record, it’s difficult to conclude anything other than that Sam Beam has made one of the albums of the year. Sublime.