With each release, Sam Beam, the man and beard behind Iron & Wine, does theoretically what every lasting musician should: he expands the breadth of the sounds, instruments, and recording options available to him in order to allow that much more discovery and possibility. This is in one sense due to his simply being allowed to, since with each bunch of songs he’s gained more and more popularity, and thusly has been afforded the ensuing recording capabilities. As we remember, he made his first LP, The Creek Drank the Cradle, entirely alone in a basement, which is the perfect fairytale beginning for this sort of career path. It’s difficult not to imagine him sitting there thoughtfully, etching out those songs with only himself as guidance, with perhaps the occasional interruption of his mom rapping on the door to offer him a sandwich. Further stages of his work include his first, real live studio effort replete with fancy equipment and snappy production (Our Endless Numbered Days), and even a celebrated collaboration with another band ripe with Southern themes, although from the other end of this country’s bottom half (In the Reins with Calexico). It’s actually sort of sweet to imagine our innocent lad wading softly through the various musical stages: home crafted album, studio album, collaborative album…shit, he even “went electric” with the Woman King EP. And now we have The Shepherd’s Dog, the culmination of all these musical lessons and undertakings, and boy what a big sound it carries.
For The Shepherd’s Dog, Beam re-teamed with producer Brian Deck to create what definitely represents a gathering of lessons from albums and efforts past. He seems to take great pleasure in this expansion and the constant introduction of new sounds and ideas. For example, this album displays a whole slew of fun new instruments such as the accordion, sitar, and I may be off my rocker here, but methinks I detect the subtle twangs of a jaw harp. And this added to other treats such as vocal distortion and feedback. Through it all, however, one never forgets who they’re listening to, that same seemingly shy young man who first whispered to us so long ago. Beam’s unmistakable hush remains constant, yet throughout a few newly upbeat numbers he now somehow seems to contain the drive necessary to back up such songs. Take tracks like “Pagan Angel And A Borrowed Car” and “The Devil Never Sleeps,” which are so upbeat and catchy that you find yourself actually head boppin’ to Iron & Wine, an activity I’d rarely encountered in the past. Hey kids, Iron & Wine is not just make-out music anymore!
Lyrically, The Shepherd’s Dog superbly upholds Beam’s knack for engaging poetics and cleverly woven lines. Him there’s a real smart one. On the album Beam peruses some of his favorite topics with his usual poetic mastery, revisiting biblical themes, and also those such as loss of innocence and some lovey dovey stuff. Particularly awesome are lines like “I was still a beggar shaking out my stolen coat /Among the angry cemetery leaves / When they caught the king beneath the borrowed car /Righteous, drunk, and fumbling for the royal keys” and “Cain bought a blade from some witch at the window / Abel bought a bag of weed.” That said, dissecting his excellent lines for meaning this time around might prove to be more cryptic than before. It’s somewhat easy to pick out the general themes of the verses and therefore let your mind wander in the right analytical direction, but the words here are simply not as straightforward as some of those we’ve heard out of Beam before. He packs a double whammy of musical and literary talent, to be sure.
With all these changes, many of them progressive and natural for the musician’s course, we’re inevitably left with the question, “Were they for the better?” An argument could definitely be made for the fact that a certain something is lost when “rootsy” music is exposed to the glistening studio touch. Certainly there are moments where Beam’s innocent simplicity gets lost among glossy passages ripe with fancy new instruments. But something that just cannot be lost is that voice of his, and the sage-like observations and lessons it spews. These are parts of Beam that are unmistakable and they seem to ground any work that he does, this latest album, however fancy, in particular. While there’s an obvious contrast between The Creek Drank the Cradle and The Shepard’s Dog, and all those in between, in the end The Shephard’s Dog manages not to become a turnoff to the Iron & Wine fan.
But hey, I could be dead wrong, since it’s not like I’ve ever met the guy or anything. But I did spend all of last weekend with his cousin Jim.