Album: Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean (4AD)

5.00

The tremendous The Shepherd's Dog, from 2007, found Sam "Iron and Wine" Beam's musical muse tugged in turn towards the influences of Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Calexico and African guitar bands. Kiss Each Other Clean is much more focused and homogenous, but there's still a lingering sense of abundant inspiration, eager to carry the songs off to different lairs.

Take the single "Walking Far from Home", which opens the album in an apocalyptic vision, a repetitive litany of startling imagery in the vein of "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall", Beam struggling to evoke the strangeness and alienation of his journey, which eventually concludes with the relieved acknowledgement that "it came like a call from the Lord". The sweetly lilting arrangement and cooing counterpoint harmonies are then replaced by the liquid, Sly Stone-style bare funk groove of "Me and Lazarus", which develops the religious theme in a different direction, musing upon last chances and lost opportunities.

The rest of the album occupies a musical space somewhere between these opening tracks, a crossover blend of folk and funk elements that variously recalls J J Cale, CSNY, Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder and Traffic – all admirable touchstones, ingeniously combined here to surprising effect. The songs, however, transcend these influences through Beam's use of cryptic imagery. So although it's no problem following the memory of a teenage romantic liaison in "The Tree by the River", the course of "Rabbit Will Run" is less easily tracked: it's something to do with a fugitive's memories of his mother, and his enigmatic rationale for his unspoken crime, sketched out against a shifting backdrop of smudges of wah-wah guitar, buzzy organ, thumb-piano, flute and ominous keyboard chords, sculpted into a skeletal groove.

Whatever the overall meaning of a song, barely a minute goes by without an arresting image or couplet snagging one's attention, be it as allegorical as the coupling of lion and lamb in "Big Burned Hand", or as genuinely evocative as "As far as I can tell, the night won't compensate the blind". But as the end of the album approaches, Beam reverts again to the rolling litany style with which it opened, as if all that had happened in between were fantasies that he needs to anchor within these more stable forms.

Penultimate track "Glad Man Singing" is a glorious surge of piano, marimba and harmonies, on which the lilting list of curious imagery rolls like a stream in flood towards its final destination where "the mouth of the river is wide". It's followed by the itchy jazz-funk of "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me", which climaxes with another litany, this time of things "we will become", organised in paired opposites – the liked and the loathed, the blossom and the wilt, the glory and the guilt, etc. In Beam's world, it seems, there is no inclination that doesn't come locked to its contradictory impulse, but between those poles, most things are possible.

DOWNLOAD THIS Walking Far from Home; Me and Lazarus; Rabbit Will Run; Glad Man Singing; Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me

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