Known for stylistic and lyrical complexity, seasoned singer-songwriter and (apparently) filmmaker, Samuel Bean aka Iron and Wine has invoked underground stardom for densely diverse albums, a low personal profile, and injecting some life into a particular genre.
I first heard Sam Bean’s music through the popular television drama, House. The episode that his song, Passing Afternoon, played on was melancholia on a silver platter. Between Bean’s nimble, whispery voice, the dreary melodies dripping from his acoustic guitar, and the troubling nature of this episode, it made for a beautifully disheartening first impression. I felt as if there was no room for any splinter of joy to experience in his music. Yet something drew me to this despondent blend of indie/folk that Bean had to offer. I never followed his discography closely, but through the course of three later albums, his music began to surface on many acoustic playlists made by my friends, iTunes, and later Spotify. I couldn’t get away from Iron & Wine, so I began to think that he was onto something. Over time, I began to slowly chip away at his discography, but not in sequential order, nor in whole for that matter.
Because I haven’t navigated every nook and cranny of Bean’s discography, I can’t formulate a strong opinion about his musical evolution. I can confidently say, however; that on later records there are some stylistic leaps over the Grand Canyon. Woman King and Our Endless Numbered Days take on classic, singer-songwriter formulas with cloudy instrumentation and a light tone. More recent albums like Kiss Each Other Clean dive into a murky pool of eccentric folk and new age, yet still remain some of those singer-songwriter roots.
Even Bean himself said that albums like this were meant to prevent him from being stylistically pigeon holed. I listened to select tracks from that album like Rabbit Will Run admiring such weird, complicated instrumentation and abstract lyricism. The other songs I’ve heard on that album mostly follows suit, but does it carry to this newer release, Ghost on Ghost? Here’s the long answer. I was on my way to Green Bay a couple weekends ago and needed something to shake up the endless amounts of Mat Kearney and Being As An Ocean I was listening to all summer. So I found Ghost on Ghost and let it soak in on highway 29. I was quite taken aback by a sharp musical left turn for Sam Bean, but it left a good impression on me.
So, here’s the short answer. Iron and Wine basically wrote a jazz album.
Ghost on Ghost is decorated with bass heavy, smoky-bar blues. I feel like I’m listening to the moodier side of Glenn Miller, Charles Mingus, or Ronnie Cuber when I listen to this collection of songs. They have bellowing bari saxophone, brooding double bass, and sweet higher register piano pieces that encompass a smooth listen. I will get more into specific tracks later, but I think it’s a surprisingly natural style for Iron and Wine. It’s an easy listen that maintains a low profile. It’s not like any of his earlier albums are any more “thrilling,” but I would say this record is especially mellow. When you hear those moments of tenor and alto saxophone sweetly serenade these singer-songwriter ballads, it’s a very kick back, ethereal listen.
I don’t want to mislead you, the reader/listener by saying that this is a thoroughbred jazz record, because it’s not. A majority of this album still keeps its singer-songwriter roots, but integrates a lot of bluesy flourishes that are laced throughout these songs. For example, the opening track, Caught In the Briars, begins like a throwback to material I’ve heard off Our Endless Numbered Days, until about half way though when this saxophone section adds in these brief licks. Low Light Buddy of Mine breathes like east coast hip-hop with very looped guitar licks, heavy bass, and an alto saxophone solo at the end. Winter Prayers was on an acoustic playlist made by Spotify last winter. It’s one of the few songs that retain this much essence of singer-songwriter on this entire record. Lover’s Revolution brings the low tones out of the woodwork with a bari sax that crecendos and builds up to this full swing band. It’s where Sam Bean also feels the most vocally passionate and intense on this record. This is also my favorite song by far.
It’s weird. I honestly don’t know how to describe such lyrical abstractness. While it feels like nonsense, there are a lot of cleverly put together turns of phrase throughout many songs on this record. For the most part (at least from what I’ve heard), Iron and Wine’s discography is lyrically woven together by folklore. I actually think it takes a certain mind to be able to do that and not make it come out like word salad. Kudos Sam. Kudos.
The mood says everything. For most of this record, the low-fi, analog quality is very organic. It feels as if you’re sitting at a smoke filled whole in the in the wall bar downtown listening to a local big band play this album at midnight. I like that this isn’t a sterilized record. For that I believe it pays homage to the genre that Sam Bean borrows so heavily from, which is built on the heart and soul of the instrumentation. There’s character.
This is a surprisingly good album. I didn’t really know what to expect, but as a fan of jazz, blues, and singer-songwriter, Iron and Wine created something that feels natural. This is a well balanced record that takes from all these different directions, amalgamating it into an easy listen that has a good flow, pace, and variation. I don’t claim to now be a die hard Iron and Wine fan, but I’d recommend this record.