Thursday, March 24, 2011

Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog (2007)

(Sub Pop)


Sam Beam was an important performer to me in the last decade, someone who brought the integral forces and potential of American music back into focus -- modern and vital and mysterious, untied to any specific time. When Kiss Each Other Clean, his latest album under the Iron & Wine moniker, was issued and felt like the letdown of the year to me, I got the urge to scramble back and reevaluate a record I came to absolutely adore a year after its release, The Shepherd's Dog, the third I&W album and the first I bought. I would soon discover even greater pleasures in the prior Our Endless Numbered Days and any number of peripheral releases, but Shepherd's Dog opened up a door for me. When encountering fans who felt that this record was moving too far in a polished, lush direction, I balked. But now that I have had the same reaction to Kiss, I tend to wonder: am I turning into one of those people? A fresh appraisal of Shepherd's Dog seemed fair.

Short answer: No way. Recorded and released in what now seems like a quaintly hopeful time, The Shepherd's Dog has worn its first four years gracefully. None of the MOR hangups that mar Iron & Wine's major label debut exist here, and all of its charms are as intense and its music as impressive as ever. Beam's intricate folk, already breathtakingly beautiful on his first two LPs, seems to open up as the curtain of a theater here to reveal a pastoral landscape dotted with menace and private emotion, elation to bitterness to sorrow but never emptiness.

Undeniably, Shepherd's Dog does stand out from Creek Drank the Cradle and Days: gone is the lo-fi simplicity, in favor of a carefully produced musical kaleidoscope: more percussion than ever before, electric guitar, piano, elements of heretofore unexplored rhythmic valleys, generally the sound of an actual band, which does wonders for the liveliness of these songs and the flights they take. Beam's populist sweetness -- the spinning-around childhood spilling into college-age reflection, an easy connection either way -- allows for a relatively easy Astral Weeks comparison; even if Shepherd's Dog has nothing like the complexity of that masterpiece, it's certainly what Beam strives for, a worthy objective for his talents. As his once-stark folk spills into busy, detailed, soft atmospheres, it earns a remarkable adaptability, the claustrophobic woodshed and the grassy field of "Brown Eyed Girl" approached with equal enthusiasm.

Little attention was afforded Shepherd's sequencing, but much of its magic can be attributed to the gradual build and climactic blush -- it opens with three delicate but assured anthems. "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car" was made for the beginning of someone's road trip, the meaty classic-rock hooks of "White Tooth Man" delivering on every gritty Byrdsian promise Beam ever made, "Lovesong of the Buzzard" making glittery and raw romance of its desolation. Here, though, Beam sticks the knife in, with one of the strongest three-track runs in recent memory. The almost unearthly "Carousel" gives way to the creeping Appalachian glories of "House by the Sea" (very nearly the finest song he has written to date), then to the lyrically scathing, musically ecstatic "Innocent Bones" an unforgettable humanist relief quite conveniently sharing its year of origin with the Arcade Fire's similarly themed (and far less subtle) "Intervention."

"Wolves" returns to the spinning, layered intensity of the early cuts; anything would be a letdown after hearing Beam let himself go completely on "Innocent Bones" and its companions. A second series of more reflective gems, also unmissable, dominates the second half of the LP. Literate and on the verge of falling apart like late-period Big Star, "Resurrection Fern" suggests the direction one wishes Kiss Each Other Clean had pressed with, while "Boy with a Coin" lives exclusively in the moment of Shepherd's Dog with its teasing rhythmic and vocal tricks, a shower of noise, and "The Devil Never Sleeps" brings the fireside, perhaps slowly dying or creeping along uncontrolled.

Of all the record's many shimmering highlights, only the widely beloved "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" bears any suggestion of the overbearing balladry direction that Beam would choose to take next; because of his subsequent work, it now becomes a difficult song to listen to, but get beyond that and you can still detect the novelty, and the well-intended emotional crescendos. Most of its points, though, are made more succinctly elsewhere on the record (and are not hampered by vampire associations).

The all-important Specialness of Iron & Wine lies not in any cosmic-American skewering of roots music but in its sheer shorthand celebration of same, and the special (calm, collected, but devotedly passionate) way Beam has of tying it all together with his voice in a singular, personal manner. That world-apart wisdom can deliver a music that is at times indescribably lovely, a carrying on of Morrison, of Nick Drake, of Gram Parsons, of any unpretentious, dignified quiet master of song.

At its best, The Shepherd's Dog achieves something rarer than even Beam probably realizes: it's communicative of actual joy.

Kiss Each Other Clean (2011)

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