Iron & Wine is really one man — Sam Beam, a native of the American South and an artist who has been likened to Nick Drake and Simon and Garfunkel. Since 2002, the alternative, indie-folk sounds of Iron & Wine have beckoned listeners into Beam’s hushed world. With the September 2007 release of his third studio album, The Shepherd’s Dog, Beam has added another dimension of sound to his quiet, comfortable universe.
Beam recorded his first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, by himself at his home. It was a lo-fi, one-man business, but the coarse quality of the songs worked perfectly with Beam’s gentle storytelling and murmured lyrics. Since then, Iron & Wine has moved slowly into the intricacies of studio work.
In The Shepherd’s Dog, there is more than Beam’s soft vocals and solo acoustics. Every song has developed new instrumental complexity. “House By the Sea” is expertly layered with the sounds of harmonica, electric guitar, vibraphone, and didgeridoo. The dark but bouncy “Boy With a Coin” uses handclaps as the main percussive backing to its quick-tempo acoustics. In “Carousel,” the lilting melody carries with it all the weight and melancholy of nostalgia. Here, even Beam’s garbled, synthesized voice seems like a diluted memory.
Some might complain that Beam’s words are drowned out by the addition of so many new instruments and effects. It could be said that some of the intimacy has been lost on this album, especially when compared to earlier releases. But really, it’s still the same Iron & Wine. Though Beam dabbles in different styles (including jazz, folk, and rock) for this album, the songs still have the same tender, delicate vocals and thought-provoking lyrics of his previous works.
Iron & Wine is one of the most reliable and innovative artists currently available. Beam has managed to retain his individuality as he experiments and grows, staying true to his roots in a unique, Southern pastoral sound. His new album doesn’t disappoint.