Iron & Wine – Reflecting on the 10th Anniversary of “Kiss Each Other Clean”

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Iron & Wine – Reflecting on the 10th Anniversary of “Kiss Each Other Clean”
The Album First Came Out on January 25, 2011

Oct 22, 2021

By Austin Saalman


Rarely does a popular songwriter so drastically shift into an entirely different creative direction and sound so great in doing so that their original style is hardly missed at all. The year 2007 marked such a turning point for singer/songwriter Sam Beam, better known by his stage moniker Iron & Wine. With the release of The Shepherd’s Dog, Beam strongly insinuated that his departure from the tranquil, stripped-down folk sound for which he had become revered was imminent. Incorporating a multitude of new instruments and vocal manipulation techniques, as well as darker, more overtly political lyrical content, and offering a wider variety of genre influences, Iron & Wine’s third studio album introduced a side of Beam previously unrevealed to the public.

Propelled by the critical acclaim and general acceptance of the audience, Beam moved even farther from the roots of his earlier releases and deeper into the raw pop experimentalism which would define his subsequent output. Taking a sharper turn into the unfamiliar, Beam released Kiss Each Other Clean in January 2011, embodying a style and sound so far removed from the elegant acoustic balladry of 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days that it felt natural to some to question whether Beam was still behind the Iron & Wine title at all.

Beam’s fourth studio album in nine years, Kiss Each Other Clean arrived on the heels of a new decade, something oracular, prophesying the radical changes to occur within the near future. While his previous release had straddled the line between lo-fi folk and intricate world music-influenced pop, Kiss Each Other Clean certainly remains indebted, but turns its focus to a lush, synth-heavy retro pop soundscape often reminiscent of the ’70s AM radio hits of Beam’s youth. Lyrically, the landscape of Kiss Each Other Clean feels distinctly American, which is surprising given its incorporation of aforementioned world sounds. Everything about it works though, as Beam’s phantasmagoric fever dreams can be comprehended by any passionate listener. The album’s themes may vary, but Beam’s signature biblical allusions and sense of ethereal pining remain present. Still, an apocalyptic sense of urgency permeates the album, enabling the divergent nature of its textured sounds, as evidenced immediately on the Dylanesque opening track “Walking Far from Home.”

Here, Beam channels his inner troubadour as he journeys a great distance, glimpsing numerous mystifying, even enigmatic sights along the way. From “sinners making music” to a “millionaire pissing on the lawn,” Beam documents his visions as though bound to a pilgrimage, before hearing the long awaited call of the Lord. “Walking Far from Home” is one of Beam’s most triumphant songs, a sprawling traveler’s tale spoken across an ocean of fuzzy synthesizers, ultimately setting the stage for much of the album’s sound and imagery.

The subsequent “Me and Lazarus” is a mellow transitional track to the album’s masterpiece, the nostalgic “Tree By the River.” This rich rumination on teenage romance took Beam 10 years to write. Opening with, “Mary Ann, do you remember/The tree by the river/When we were 17,” Beam’s sentiment is sincere, his lyrics and melody so tight and honest that they evoke the very sensation of the restless lust-in-the-guise-of-love one often feels at such an age. The lyrics are deceptively simple, yet pack a swift emotional punch. The gritty “Monkeys Uptown” is a far cry from his wistful early classics, with Beam accompanied by xylophone and electric guitar, displaying a ceratin vocal aggression as he sings, “The monkeys uptown/They told you not to fuck around.”

This ringing intensity is followed by the beguiling doo wop of “Half Moon,” on which Beam outdoes himself as both lyricist and composer. This is easily one of Iron & Wine’s greatest songs and a major highlight of Kiss Each Other Clean. Beam’s poetry bears a distinctly earthy quality as he conjures a deep, nocturnal world covered in snow, in which he finds himself asleep on the floor beside a lover, dreaming of frozen leaves and “ragged crows.” In contrast, “Rabbit Will Run” explores Beam’s interest in world music to its fullest and the harp and piano-centered “Godless Brother in Love” serves as one of his most aching ballads, and yet one more display of his lyrical prowess. “Big Burned Hand,” a key track, shares a certain abrasiveness with “Monkeys Uptown,” but is far more accessible. Beam’s scorched earth is populated by goddesses, lions, and lambs, and is accompanied by several disquieting observations, Beam at last declaring that the “lion and the lamb kept fucking in the back row”—a lyrical yet unsettling proclamation uncharacteristic of the generally mild Southern poet.

The melodically mirthful “Glad Man Singing” shines a warm light across the bleak scenery, with Beam having pulled out of his ominous spiral. The lively acoustic guitar and hollow percussion underscore his lyrics, shrouded in esoteric symbolism, with fallen angels and valleys of shadows. At seven minutes in length, closing track “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me” is one of Iron & Wine’s lengthier numbers, moving, once more, from the traditional Iron & Wine formula and into gritty guitar rock territory, with Beam delving deeply into the same jazz fascinations which were to appear in prominence on 2013’s Ghost on Ghost. As on the remainder of Kiss Each Other Clean—a title derived from a line in “Fake Name”—this track continues Beam’s mutilated ’70s pop motif, decorated with a wailing saxophone and, at one point, a rather fierce guitar solo. Consider this the logical next step from the former crowned prince of the lo-fi independent music scene back when it held some significance. As the album closes, Beam assures his listeners, “We will become, become/Become again and again” as the rage of Judgement Day crashes down around him.

While well received by critics upon its release a decade ago, Kiss Each Other Clean was initially difficult for some to digest. Multiple listens would, however, realize it to be quite possibly Iron & Wine’s most artistically realized release. Carrying more edge than any previous effort of Beam’s career, Kiss Each Other Clean also bears more aching tenderness than even that of his classic tearjerkers “Naked As We Came” and “The Trapeze Swinger.”

Beam, who it could be argued deserves the title Poet Laureate of the Modern South, is a lyrical powerhouse, managing to walk the line between folky simplicity and literary complexity. What he did with his words sometimes overshadowed the music during those early days, their weight often required a wider, more full-bodied sound to contain them. Perhaps Beam knew this, merely biding his time with that ’00s bedroom folk, lying in wait for a larger studio budget to eventually be proffered, thus allowing him to produce the heavy, experimental indie pop of which he dreamed. Perhaps The Shepherd’s Dog and everything to follow had been Sam Beam all along. Regardless, his Iron & Wine output has remained perplexing, diverse, and in a constant state of endless creative and aesthetic evolution. While he has not released a studio album in over five years, Beam has built a collective of devoted fans, eagerly awaiting his next offering and whatever changes it may bring, and managed to persevere, as only artists of his caliber are able to do. The scene shifted, then faded, but Beam maintained his dignity and gracefully moved forward. These 10 solid tracks become a peculiar nostalgia trip all their own, but, ultimately, serve to preserve the sensation of burning ingenuity flowing within their creator, a sensation which has failed to fade. With Kiss Each Other Clean now 10 years behind, one cannot help but to view it as a revealing early relic from the dawn of a decade that would, eventually, and for better or worse, shake modern history to its very core. Here is Sam Beam’s Book of Revelation.

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