When the inevitable I Love The Early 2000s special airs on VH1 in a couple of years, the program will no doubt feature Aziz Ansari or some even fresher-faced comic waxing goofily about that scene in Garden State, where the guy from Scrubs cuddles post-coitus with the princess from the bad Star Wars movies to the tender soundtrack of Iron and Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights.” By that time, The Postal Service will have issued a dominating comeback album, restoring Ben Gibbard to twee-king status. Zooey Deschanel will duet on a couple of tracks, and The O.C.: The Next Generation will use one of them as its new theme song. Meanwhile, Sam Beam will be busy preparing a hot slab of record in his Texas studio, one that the guys at Warner Bros. Digital Music services won’t know what the hell to do with — an Italian porno-funk soundtrack or a drone-metal song-suite based on God Emperor of Dune — and Beam will grin devilishly beneath his beard delivering the record, giddily high-stepping away from the hushed reverent Southern-gothic expanses of his big breaks, The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days.
For now, we have Kiss Each Other Clean, the fourth full-length LP from the singer/songwriter. His last record, The Shepherd’s Dog, was described here on TMT by Larry Fitzmaurice as sounding like “Tom Waits if he took soy milk in his coffee,” and here the comparison rings true. If The Shepherd’s Dog was Beam’s Swordfishtrombones, the album where a distinguished level of curiosity and adventurism added sharp edges of contrast to the songwriter’s established patterns, Kiss Each Other is his Rain Dogs, given fully to the new format — obtuse, dense, and, to the throngs of Starbucks sippers and tender-hearted Braffs, potentially alienating.
Of course, the album bears the birthmarks of its daddy: although he cloaks the words in layers of mic-fuzz and obstruction, Beam is essentially singing about the themes he always has since his debut, death and sex, and he still uses the same common language; Old Testament barbs delivered with Deep South sincerity. “The Lion and the Lamb/ Kept fucking in the back room,” he seethes on “Big Burned Hand,” a track that vaguely sounds like Peter Gabriel fronting The Band. And with that line, he makes bluntly clear his continued narrative.
Familiar characters and settings show up routinely throughout the record: Lazarus, “shoveling the ashes out,” birds, in the air, rivers, trees, dogs, rabbits, weeds and flowers. Beam isn’t aiming for new focus lyrically, but it’s not as if he should. Few artists create images as clear as Beam. Credit his cinematic background, then, for his ability to conjure up scenes so vividly — the mother and captain caught in conflict in the story of “Rabbits Will Run,” the browning river and warning primates of “Monkeys Uptown,” the buildings “high as heaven” with impossibly small doors encountered in the journey of “Walking Far From Home,” the opening track. “I saw blood/ And a bit of it was mine,” Beam sings, setting the tone. He’s directing actors in character here, but like John Huston or Woody Allen, he doesn’t fear cutting himself in the story.
The remarkable change here comes from courtesy of the record’s sonic qualities. Beam describes to SPIN the sound as “the music people heard in their parent’s car growing up… that early-to-mid-’70s FM, radio-friendly music,” and while he is certainly correct, Kiss Each Other never comes close to sounding like a “yacht-rock” irony bid, delving as much into blues, art-rock, dub, electronic, and African tribal music as it does FM-lite. Producer Brian Deck, reprising his role at the helm from The Shepherd’s Dog, helps guide the band, comprised of members of Califone and Antibalas, through Beam’s twists and turns, adding woodwinds both smooth and shronking, penny whistles, electric pianos, clicks, beeps, and distorted guitars to the maw.
While Beam deals in established modes, “Walking Far From Home” doesn’t sound like it could have existed on a Joni Mitchell album; it sounds like this moment in music history, especially when the distorted synth bass takes hold near the end and Beam’s vocals pile in harmony on top of each other. Tracks like “Me And Lazarus” and “Big Burned Hand” both strut funkily — bold and aggressive pop from a man who made his earliest marks with an acoustic guitar and solitary voice. Even when he chooses to revist the quiet force of his earliest records, like on “Godless Brother in Love,” the most gentle track on the album, Beam outfits his plaintive melodies with grand accompaniment: swelling harmonies and flirting harps urging the lullaby forward. Does an Iron and Wine album need to have record scratching? Does it need to have sax solos? The phrase “potty-mouthed girl”? I’m sure Beam could get by without them, but I far prefer the willingness to screw it all up than the precaution of playing it safe.
Closing track “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me” pushes the album to its furthest extremes, opening with Chicago horns, harmonies, and a skittering African guitar and percussion combo, steadily adding discordant saxes and tension-building guitars before cresting to a tense Crazy Horse guitar break, only to build up over again, inching toward the seven-minute mark in increasing, crashing increments. “We will become, both right and wrong/ We will become/ Become/ The sound and the song/ We bill become/ Become/ The target and the gun,” Beam sings over the crushing noise. “We will become/ Both now and then/ Become/ Become.”
Its so easy to look back at movies like Garden State, even ideas like Garden State, and scoff at the naive, blundering innocence of it all, but Beam was singing about the “big stuff” even back then, managing to sell sex, death, God to M & M’s commercials, stuffed between the “freckles in our eyes.” Somewhere along the line, we got cynical, with our wars, recessions, and crumbling status, as our national discussion got ugly and shed blood, and we started covering up all that innocence with whatever noise we could find, scuzzing up our pop songs, sampling somebody else’s sincerity on our laptops, and puking up atonal noise. Beam is still singing to those of us who believed at one, less guarded, point, that whatever Natalie Portman was listening to could change our lives. We know better, now, sure, but that hope is still hiding underneath all the bluster, and Beam has only gotten better at documenting it, singing about and to it.