Sam Beam has been steadily walking away from the spare, acoustic sound that won him acclaim as Iron And Wine a decade ago, rarely looking over his shoulder at the naked beauty of his debut, The Creek Drank The Cradle. With each album he adds more colors and layers, which has proved frustrating for fans of his early, Nick Drake-y years but artistically exhilarating for him: 2011’s gorgeous Kiss Each Other Clean piled on the sounds and instruments, fleshing his skeletons into full-bodied songs. There’s been a trade-off over the years—intimacy for a more expressive sonic palette—and from the sound of the fifth proper Iron And Wine album, Ghost On Ghost, he’s interested in moving even further and fuller still.
There are times here when Iron And Wine tiptoes on a line it’d be better off not crossing, when the desire to go big results in one too many instruments (usually a saxophone) or an edge too polished and yacht-ready. But most of Ghost On Ghost treads territory similar to Kiss Each Other Clean, just with a bit more loose-limbed joy replacing that album’s austere moments. Beautiful album-opener “Caught In The Briars” starts with a clatter, but matches it nicely with Beam’s honey-sweet voice and a tease of lonely guitar before filling out into a horn-assisted stroll. (It’s also the album’s first mention of “naked boys,” who show up on the similarly fantastic reprise “Sundown.”) On the edgier end of Ghost’s spectrum, “Singers And The Endless Song” sounds like Lalo Schifrin’s Dirty Harry soundtrack, all sinister and bass-driven. “The Desert Babbler” gets a little too close to the yacht club, but makes good sense in context.
And then there’s “Joy,” a brief nod to what the Sam Beam of 2013 might consider stripped-down: His voice, warm and echoing, is accompanied by just a tinkling piano, barely there acoustic guitar, some tasteful brushed cymbals, and a mountain of reverb. (There’s even a lyrical nod to the past when he sings, “born crooked as a creek bed.”) It’s the most purely beautiful moment on an album filled with a lot of sounds and players—the I&W live band is up to a dozen or more at the moment—and it’s made more beautiful by what surrounds it. And while a Beam-in-his-bedroom album would probably receive a rapturous welcome—there’s no reason you can’t do one of those too, Sam—it’d be silly to sit and wait for that when there’s so much colorful, layered beauty to unpack right here.