Iron and Wine

The Shepherd's Dog

(Sub Pop; 2007)

By Mark Abraham | 8 October 2007

Since Sam Beam’s Southern Gothic thick description pretty much requires its own review I won’t say much about it. Beam writes great, vivid lyrics and, deploying the implicit social muckraking of a Southern Gothic approach, his anti-Antebellum portraits of American life deliciously redesign the lazy halcyon whatevers that Neo-Cons are always, mid-pearl clutch, wishing we could get back to. Back to where? The middle of the Civil War? To Andrew Jackson? (Although, sidebar: I patiently wait for Beam’s ode to Buchanan, the “fabulous” bachelor president, because we need the White House to be a little more queer) Besides, despite the amount of porch metaphors that have been lobbed his way, Beam isn’t a mint julip-style countryness stuck in the 19th century anyway; his comforting voice (I’ll paraphrase Conrad Amenta: “it’s bubble bath-inducing; it makes me want some me-time”) is an old rugged cross that shines above his panoramic views of a contradictory countryside where women and men never act like the moral majority believes they should—because, you know, they’re acting like real people.

On the back of these myths Beam has—consciously or unconsciously—created quite a mythology for himself: the un-Sub Pop beard; the chameleon folk master who matriculates apocalyptic vignettes out of molting, rejuvenated folkie flesh; the indie-folkster who’s got wags lapping at his feet like the title character of his new album, all “each of his releases is such a step forward from the last one!” And on one hand, sure, I’ll buy that Beam and producer Brian Deck have become much more adventurous in their palette since 2002. On the other hand, each album is sort of like a redux of Beam’s original vision: The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002) was, for material reasons, recorded all by his lonesome in his bedroom; its quality has ensured its status as the post-millenial how-to guide for aspiring indie-folksters. Cue Our Endless Numbered Days (2004): “Brian Deck, add some percussion in here!” Cue the Woman King EP (2005): “Brian Deck, add even more percussion and more slide guitars and make these songs rock!” Cue The Shepherd’s Dog: “Brian Deck! Add even more percussion and toss some blues and dub and afrobeat in there, what?”

Consequently, I don’t think it’s too harsh to suggest that each Iron & Wine album is not a step forward so much as a more sophisticated look at the same paces. For possibly the first time with Beam’s work, however, The Shepherd’s Dog makes what was once a vague sense of been-there-done-that-with-less-technicolor a feeling that’s easy to explain. At least in the sense that Beam is first and foremost a singer-songwriter, nothing is particularly surprising on The Shepherd’s Dog. Now, I don’t mean that as an outright diss; “unsurprising” is not the same as bad, and this is a good record. But I get the sense that Deck’s contributions to Iron & Wine are starting to eclipse Beam’s, at least in the sense of what we’re hearing or why it sounds exciting, and that’s a problem too, because as much as I enjoy The Shepherd’s Dog, I can’t escape the notion that Beam’s reaching a bit of a wall with this record. I call it the Sufjan wall; it’s the point where the only way to differentiate your new material from your old material is to layer more different shit on top of it.

Joking aside, there’s something telling in the album’s single, “Boy with a Coin.” The track opens with a riff that’s so Paul Simon it’s almost mocking how obvious the connection between the two artist’s trek from folkie to world music drifter is. And then Beam starts singing, and it’s entirely an Iron & Wine song again; solo Simon was never able to write dismal, sincere music like this, and that happy guitar lick gets buried in layers of clapping, guitar feedback, and other accenting noise. Because, ultimately, Beam’s audience understands what a Beam song sounds like so intimately that this kind of misdirection only serves as the exception that proves to sound like every Iron & Wine song ever; we get exactly what we were expecting anyway, the only difference being that Deck’s coming through on the promise of the Woman King EP makes it much harder to parse what Beam actually saying. Which presumably is the reason why we listen to Iron & Wine and not Califone, because, I mean, what happens when Deck finally takes Beam to a place he’s already leveled with Califone? Okay: that is a bit unfair (although possible), since admittedly Califone/Deck tend to deconstruct music from the inside while Iron & Wine/Deck adorn their deconstructions on top. Or, in the case of “The Devil Never Sleeps,” some weird hybrid of Billy Joel and the Allman Brothers. It’s all vaguely postmodern, right?

This is a long way of saying that while it is, perhaps, entirely unfair to lay the burden of Beam’s entire future career on this present album, these questions do help to explain the following seemingly contradictory statements: A) this album does not, by a long-shot, contain any of my favorite Iron & Wine songs; B) this album is, by a long-shot, my favorite Iron & Wine album. As an album it is far more cohesive and full of shifts in tone and tenacity than anything Beam has released to this point, even if that breadth is almost entirely due to the production. And it might be useful to make a fairly arbitrary but telling comparison here: The Shepherd’s Dog should rest nicely next to Feist’s The Reminder on playlists and desktops and in CD trays. The biggest difference between them, however, is that Feist has achieved the same career milestone cohesiveness and breadth as Beam by honing and maturing her composition rather than simply throwing more fuel on a fire that was already burning. And while it’s unclear how much Beam was in charge of the decision to draw European, African, Asian, and Carribean influences into this, his role is almost besides the point: it’s done well, but it still sounds like he just picked a song to apply, say, prog on top of.

That song is “Carousel,” where Beam turns an almost-too-close-for-comfort “Wanted Dead or Alive” finger-picking barrage into a surprisingly clever and faithful art rock break down, right down to the Genesis reverbed electric piano notes, blurry vocals, and dramatic shifts in finger-pick tempo. And shimmering cymbals, of course. And there’s a real appeal to the way Beam maintains his own approach to vocal rhythm as the music mimics something else (and, while it sounds really good, it is mimicry, ‘cause nobody who has heard “Supper’s Ready” more than once is going to miss it, or be all, “so that’s what Ritchie Sambora replacing Steve Hackett would be like!”). More impressive, perhaps, is the way Beam and Deck approach the African and Caribbean tracks. “House by the Sea,” which drowns a Woman King-like track in a stew of West African guitar riffs and bounding percussion, is well-paced and driven. Similarly, “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)” follows the Don Letts school of dub appropriation by hinging the tonal changes of the track on the production tricks of reggae producers rather than attempting to recreate the sound of a Tubby track wholesale. But like “Carousel,” both songs are, at heart, basic Iron & Wine skeletons placed inside the clothes of other animals.

Beyond these tracks the experimentation, such that it is, is far more about creating sonic realms within the narrative tone structures of individual tracks. These arrangements take several forms, whether it’s the heavily reverbed and resonated “Peace Beneath the City” (presumably meant to evoke the density of underground tunnels), the organs and accordions of the gorgeous and upbeat “Lovesong of the Buzzard,” the random pianos and sitars of opening duo “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” and “White Tooth Man,” the lazy harmony vocals of the hazy “Innocent Bones,” or the way “Resurrection Fern” and “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” seem to end each act with casual and more traditional Iron & Wine arrangements. Through it all, Beam’s embrace of country tonalities roams free, both in instrumentation and chord progressions, and between that and his voice all the new arrangements in the world can’t shake that central Iron & Wine intimacy. And maybe that’s why I can simultaneously be skeptical of claims that Iron & Wine is effortlessly forward-moving at the same time that I am completely charmed by this album: you’re never going to feel scared or happy or angry listening to an Iron & Wine song, but you’ll always feel comfort. Whether that comfort will get old is, for the moment at least, beside the point.