It’s easy to forgive Sam Beam for getting a bit creatively restless. As Iron and Wine, he’s already put out two gossamer bedroom-folk full-lengths -- 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle and 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days -- that did everything but directly pigeonhole him as the troubadour for sensitive 17-year-old lovers (but with less copulating and more hand-holding). 2005 saw Beam releasing two EPs; the uneven Calexico collab In the Reins and the excellent Woman King both signified a more electric and blues-based sound. EPs can be breeding grounds for new sonic directions in an artist’s career, but they can also be minor deviances before the artist gets back to what he or she knows best.
Thankfully, the latter is not the case with Iron and Wine’s new record, The Shepherd’s Dog, which finds Beam translating the small brushstrokes of eclecticism he canvassed on Woman King with larger brushes and more vibrant colors. Brian Deck’s swirling production produces mental imagery that would seldom exist in live recordings. Album opener “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” evokes a train moving steadily down the tracks at new morning, as swaying percussion and propulsive banjo pickings give way to Beam’s melodic sighs, like steam pouring from the top of an engine. The decaying dream in “Carousel” drenches Sam Beam’s vocals in underwater static, while tinkling piano lines fall around him: “Almost home/ When I miss the bottom step,” he croons; you’d think he was falling down if he didn’t sound so suspended in some colloid fantasy. Elsewhere, “The Devil Never Sleeps” has him sounding as if he’s been up all night, as cabaret piano and pedal steel do a drunken dance to CB radio vocals.
Where music fails to tell a story, Beam’s lyricism fills in the details. Amidst the tangled banjos and lusty guitar minimalism of “White Tooth Man” is a tale of small-town vice and feeble-minded crooks: “And the white tooth man who sold me a gun/ A map of Canaan and a government bond/ Said ‘I love this town, but it ain’t the same’/ Ski mask ripped as he was putting it on.” “Innocent Bones” recontextualizes Cain and Abel for moderately modern times (Cain picks up a telephone and a blade, Abel buys some hash), while Beam thoughtfully muses, “There ain’t a penthouse Christian that wants the pain or the scab/ But they all want the scar.”
It isn’t all junkyards and mint juleps on The Shepherd’s Dog; there’s material for those young lovers as well, such as the “we”-invoking folk of “Resurrection Fern” and the outtake-like closer “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” Hands will be held, gazes will be met, blushing pilgrims might convene for a brief moment or two -- don’t worry, mom and dad, no penetration. Then again, from the album’s rough, almost carnal nature, one could brusquely suggest that Sam Beam might be getting enough from that end on his own.