Ghost On Ghost is Sam Beam’s fifth studio album as Iron & Wine. It is another sonic stride away from the beautiful low-fi campfire hymns that populated his 2002 debut, The Creek Drank The Cradle. And whatever your taste or preference, you have to admire Beam’s bold and courageous avoidance of a formulaic output. Although you can trace a line back an album at a time, Ghost On Ghost is so far removed from his early work that he is barely recognisable as the same artist. Yet, he has carried a growing legion of fans along this eleven year musical journey; a journey whose destination seems unmistakably to be Easy Listeningville! But wait! Cast aside your instinctively contemptuous reaction to the world of easy listening. Or if you are a fan of easy listening and you’ve been in hiding since the 80’s, come out – this Iron & Wine release has come to make you cool again!
The album opens with Caught In The Briars, building on the African rhythms that perforated 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean and sounding like a cross between Paul Simon and former collaborators, Calexico. The Desert Babbler is an infectious, masterpiece of easy-listening pop awash with lush layers of strings, horns and playful backing vocals. Joy is a simple, piano-led piece that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Burt Bacharach songbook. Low Light Buddy Of Mine carries you gently toward first single Grace For Saints And Ramblers, with electric piano and backing vocals very reminiscent of Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. The simplicity of the comparatively sparse Winter Prayers makes it shine in this collection; although it is as polished as the fuller arrangements on the album, it is the closest in spirit to early Iron & Wine recordings. The epic Baby Centre Stage is the perfect closer – with its slide guitar giving the song a country tinge, it is easy to imagine this being a live favourite and ringing in your ears as you stumble back to your tent at Green Man or End Of The Road (festival bookers, where are you?).
While musically, Beam has bulked out his sound with each release, lyrically, he revisits themes running through previous recordings; love, frequent religious references, geographically referenced and skilfully told stories. The difference here is that the lyrics play second fiddle to the lush production and lavish arrangements which have been growing steadily since 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog.
Each Iron & Wine album has been a departure from the last and yet has felt genuine; either blind to, or dismissive of, passing trends. This is a combination that not many of Beam’s peers can claim to have achieved. Ghost On Ghost is easy listening. And what’s wrong with that?