Listening to Iron & Wine’s sonically intricate, genre hopping fourth album, it is easy to forget that the nine-piece South Carolina Americana act began life as a solo lo-fi demo tape of hushed folk songs recorded on the free time of a college film professor. Iron & Wine has grown considerably in size, scope, and visibility since the humble beginnings of the project. Kiss Each Other Clean is the work of a surprisingly limber band and a songwriter with a good ear for melody and evocative turns of phrase.
Mastermind Sam Beam’s spectral tenor is still very much the center of attention this time out. Rather than coasting on a good dynamic, though, Kiss Each Other Clean instead stretches Iron & Wine’s trademark Southern Gothic sound into exciting new territories. Where the last album, The Shepherd’s Dog, found Beam and company infusing their sound with various aspects of African highlife music, Kiss Each Other Clean pushes things further.
Opener “Walking Far from Home” is a slow burning waltz that incorporates light electronic flourishes into its patient build. Elsewhere the swinging “Me and Lazarus” employs rhythmic elements from both roots reggae and funk, while a horn section blows bluesy phrasings over the fray. Later in the album “Big Burned Hand” hews closer to outright funk with its sinister bass line and flatulent synth accents. The cascading Rhodes figure that washes over “Tree by the River” sounds like slick 70s AM pop. The highlife-informed “Rabbit Will Run” explodes into a jazzy coda in its closing moments. Seven-minute closer “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me” is the closest Iron & Wine has ever gotten to straight up guitar rock. Kiss Each Other Clean covers a wealth of ground in terms of the disparate genres incorporated into each of its ten songs, but it rarely feels forced.
Rather, it feels playful and unhurried, like a relaxed afternoon jam session. Kiss Each Other Clean isn’t a flawless record; the songs suffer from a little too much repetition from time to time. Most all the experiments here work, some better than others. It succeeds wherever it does thanks to Beam’s hooky songwriting and of course the commendable talents of his backing band. Kiss Each Other Clean is the sound of a crack band expanding its musical repertoire considerably, trying on new sounds and rhythms like a trip to the department store fitting room.