When I interviewed Iron And Wine's Sam Beam last year, he described the album he was then working on as being "inspired by political confusion", prompted by his shock at Bush being re-elected. "You think you understand what's going on," he said, "and then, suddenly, you realise that you don't."
Much the same could be said for the results of his labour, the songs on The Shepherd's Dog being as lyrically dense and allusive as any he's written. What, for instance, is one to make of a line like "Love was our father's flag, and so like a shake and a cake on our leather boots", from "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car", the song that pitches the listener head-first into Beam's most accomplished collection so far?
Trotting along at a casual cowboy pace, it's the most obvious beneficiary of his recent fascination with Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones, an infectious twang'*'thump exercise veneered with violins, airy backing vocals and twinkling cascades of what sounds like marovany, the Madagascan version of the kora.
There are further signs elsewhere that Beam's been rifling through the world-music racks, with the guitar and handclap groove of the single "Boy With a Coin" sounding like a Tinariwen backing track, and "Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)" resembling "I Can't Stand the Rain" as it might be played by the Touareg desert-blues masters.
The overall tone of the album, though, is less scorched and weatherbeaten than Waits' or Tinariwen's, with the delicate droplets of electric piano, vibes and guitar in "Carousel", and the whiskery slide-guitar and fluttering accordion of "Lovesong of the Buzzard", providing perfect sun-kissed settings.
Wherever one's ear ventures on The Shepherd's Dog, it's treated to a densely-textured treat, whether it's the striations of psychedelic guitar gradually enveloping "White Tooth Man" like ribbons around a maypole, or the breaths of accordion caressing Beam's recollections of youthful transformation in the concluding "Flightless Bird, American Mouth".
As for the political confusion that apparently inspired the album, it appears to have prompted the songwriter to address the past, but not the stuff of headlines, but its individual histories. As for any more definite political message, the closest you'll get to that here is Beam's acknowledgement in "Lovesong of the Buzzard" that "No one is the saviour they would like to be"; top thought from one of the albums of the year.
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