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Iron & Wine, ‘Ghost on Ghost’ (Nonesuch)

Iron & Wine / Photo by Dustin Finkelstein/Getty
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: April 16, 2013
Label: Nonesuch

Many musicians arrive with their most emphatic songs, build up their technique from there, and, if they maintain their inspiration, keep generating vital material. But if the artist vanishes and the craftsman takes over, the craftsman usually heads toward the money. After three albums with Sub Pop, each more polished and assured than the last, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam joined Warner Bros. for 2011’s louder, more varied, still artful Kiss Each Other Clean. But major-label artists require memorability — it’s the essence of hit records. So, for his new Ghost on Ghost, Beam has been relocated to Warner’s boutique label, Nonesuch.

Bean’s artistic essence is built on intimacy: It’s in his hushed, pillow-talk-y delivery, his detail-driven lyrics, and the way his songs rely on a plucked acoustic-guitar riff rather than a conventionally catchy vocal. When on Kiss he started singing in a broader voice, blurred his lyrical sense of self, and de-emphasized those folky guitar licks, the very things that first made him so distinctive began to recede. This time out, he sharpens up an occasional hook: With some wordy, compelling images that don’t add up to much but sure sound nice tripping off his tongue, “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” is uncharacteristically brisk, even propulsive. Longtime producer Brian Deck also helps him further diversify their already fine arrangements: “The Desert Babbler” recalls Curtis Mayfield’s smooth soul balladry, while “Lovers’ Revolution” suggests Rickie Lee Jones’ beatnik jazz. Nearly everything here is pleasant like a polished ’70s singer-songwriter jam. Certainly, nothing here is crass.

But singer-songwriters are, by definition, about songs and the way they sing them, and Beam on Ghost on Ghost doesn’t offer much substance in either department. As usual, there’s plenty of scene-setting figurative language, lots of briars, and tangles both literal and metaphorical; but rarely is there an easy path to tangible meaning, and the additional instrumental kudzu doesn’t help. Instead of emotion, there’s ambiguity and mood; thick and knotty textures are privileged over melodies.

It seems as if the whispering and falsetto overdubbing of Beam’s early records had compensated for the fact that his full cry is not able to access that many notes, and moreover, it’s neither expressive nor flexible. There’s plenty of hurt in it, and some yearning, but little elation: In “Joy,” he never gets near what he’s ostensibly addressing. That’s a major drawback with mealy-mouthed indie dudes, but as Beam leaves behind his comfort zone, he may be hitting a particularly acute wall. It’s his little-boy croon that’s capable of profound feeling. His big, burly, bearded man-roar is actually quite small.