Kiss Each Other Clean is the fourth studio album by Iron & Wine, the recording moniker of Sam Beam, and it is yet another great entry into his body of work, however different it may be than the albums which preceded it. Each successive album has in fact been a leap forward from the last. Shepherd's Dog is so much fuller than the mostly acoustic Our Endless Numbered Days (which itself was perceived as a change from spare, lo-fi debut The Creek Drank the Cradle) and seems to me the biggest individual jump, but Kiss Each Other Clean undeniably charts new territory and further expands Iron & Wine's sound.
Most different about this album are the selection of instruments and the arrangements of the songs. There is more xylophone, flute, and saxophone, the latter of which adds a funky new color to the palette of usual sounds. And while the hooks and melodies remain as sharp as ever, the songs feel a little more ambient and loose. Less direct, more busy. One can almost make the case that Kiss Each Other Clean plays a like a collection of Iron & Wine remixes. Take opening track, "Walking Far From Home." Someone took the vocals from an acoustic ballad and added layers of harmony that verge on abstraction, synths that gurgle and buzz, and a drum accompaniment that feels more erratic than steady. This is not a remix though, this is the recorded version. I think it's great. The music turns the song into what feels like a beautiful and haunting travelogue for the end times.
I am on board with Sam Beam changing up his sound and challenging himself creatively to present his strengths in new contexts, rather than tread the same path. (If you check out something like either of the awesome performances at Tiny Desk or Daytrotter, you can hear that the songs are rooted in the style of his earlier work). What keeps me a fan is that the changes feel authentic and organic, not forced, and more importantly, the elements that I love about Iron & Wine have not disappeared. These hallmarks are well-crafted songs, Sam's breathy yet clear voice – louder in the mix than ever before, and to good results – and his incredible writing ability.
As it did on previous albums, the writing here really blows me away. Every song is vivid, even cinematic, which makes sense given Sam's background teaching at film school. Most songs are told in first person, but rather than being "Sam Beam," they are often strongly developed imagined characters (or maybe real ones?). Just like before, he makes use of religious, pastoral, and animal imagery throughout the album, and Kiss Each Other Clean also makes clear his sense of poetic formalism. I like how he explores dualities without taking sides; it's not black or white, but all about the gray.
One of my favorite tracks is "Rabbit Will Run," which can serve as a microcosm of everything I have said about the music and writing style. A darker musical atmosphere and brisk tempo backdrop lyrics that unfold the tale of a man I imagine a criminal during his last moments between being caught and being brought to justice. The repetition of the mother, the captain, the rabbit, and the prayer with new details added to each recurrence create a nuanced and compelling portrait.
Other highlights include how "Me and Lazarus" uses the biblical figure of Lazarus to explore second chances, or lack of them, the moodiness of "Monkeys Uptown," the melodies in the chorus of "Godless Brother in Love," and the stunning second half of "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me." And then there's "Tree by the River," a gorgeous and profound song about a relationship that just hits on so much of what I love about music. I am not going to bother putting all that into words, just listen for yourself:
Kiss Each Other Clean is the most expansive sounding Iron & Wine record yet, and I dig it. I'd love to know what you all think!