Iron & Wine, 'Ghost on Ghost'
By Mack Hayden
April 16, 2013
Memories of mine dash back to the first Iron & Wine songs I heard: acoustic, quiet and bedroom intimate. I jumped on the bandwagon and fell in love with the bearded folkster paired with his guitar, both tinged with a lyrical hush. Listening to Ghost on Ghost, one can only lament the passing away of that man, his specter still present on his latter day records but his unique spirit almost all gone.It sort of reminds me of a story I’ve heard retold time and time again by my dad whenever we play a Fleetwood Mac song on the stereo. It always ends up with a restatement of the same quote: “Their sound was so warm and then they just really, really overproduced themselves.” Rumours gave way to Tango in the Night the same way Creek Drank the Cradle has surrendered to the sound of Sam Beam’s more recent records. It’s hard coming to terms with the idea the bands we grew up loving may tread the same path to irrelevancy many of our parents’ favorites did. As the James Blakes of the world take precedent over the Robin Pecknolds, Beam’s latest does little to provide a case for his or folk’s continuing importance.
For a guy who used to have his hands grasped firm around an aesthetic as comfortable by a fireplace as a graveyard, Ghost on Ghost is perhaps his least haunting release. His poetic visions of love colored by cinematic subtlety are here but barely. It’s not even the same as the Dylan-goes-electric shock of The Shepherd’s Dog. Even if that was Beam’s first foray into the world of songwriting sold at the Starbucks counter, there was still a healthy dose of originality to it. It transcended novelty and even the most acoustic-minded could agree it proved a good move for the troubadour.
Kiss Each Other Clean continued the same vibes almost as a companion piece. It was Beam’s stated purpose to reduce the “anxious tension” of these two releases for Ghost on Ghost. Here he succeeds but the result is more a swimming pool than a lazy river, concise and confining when he hoped for expanse.
It’s not that Ghost on Ghost isn’t good or listenable. It’s just how it signifies the passing of time. At the bare minimum, Ghost on Ghost sounds different even from the more musically vast albums which started appearing when Iron & Wine ceased to be a moniker and started to be a band. It was apparent from the beginning Sam Beam was an artist who wouldn’t be kept from growing. Even Our Endless Numbered Days was a major change from the lo-fi, crackly fingerpicking of The Creek Drank the Cradle.
His poet’s pen still stands as one of the best around. His former career as a film professor continues to be one of the biggest “Aha! Of course!” moments for folk fans. He can paint pictures with words both few and many, his diction being some of the most distinctive bandied about nowadays. The way he strings together his lines on “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” is a reminder that Sam Beam can never really be written off while he’s still got words to say.
Ghost on Ghost is alright but it’s definitely the blandest of his recorded output up to now. The sound was so warm and now it’s given way to overproduction on many levels. Maybe this is just what happens when bands grow up.