Idol Chatter

There are some things we just expect from certain musicians. We know Radiohead will give us postmodern technological alienation. We know Kanye West will give us pious braggadocio. And after five LP and EP releases, we’ve come to know that Sam Beam, the impressively-bearded gentleman behind the Americana/folk outfit Iron and Wine, will give us gentle songs about love, loss, and religion.

Beam has made a short career out of recording timeless-sounding, whisper-quiet folk songs whose characters drink deeply from the well of faith. Though he’s an avowed agnostic, Beam’s songs are bathed in Bible-Belt sensibilities. Over his handful of recordings, he’s written songs that make allusions to Bibles, churches, and prayers–not to mention numerous name-checks of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
Of course, we also know that we can get these things from Christendom’s patron saint of indie-folk, Mr. Sufjan Stevens. But it’s worth hanging around to see what’s on Beam’s Order of Service on his latest release, “The Shepherd’s Dog,” because this album brings some pretty big changes to his songs, both musically and conceptually.
Most notably, there’s a full band playing this time, and the songs meander away from their folk roots to edgier Americana (electric instruments!) and even a stab or two at genres like reggae and calypso.
With this newfound sense of musical experimentalism and playfulness comes a lyrical switch from straightforward (and often religious) narratives to stream-of-consciousness (and often religious) vignettes. As such, it’s hard to say what any one song on “The Shepherd’s Dog” is “about” from a spiritual perspective. Although Beam’s songs are often character sketches, he now seems to be voicing his own religious opinions rather than channeling theirs. “Innocent Bones” follows the paths of a modern-day Cain-and-Abel (the latter “bought a bag of weed”) before some of the most stirring and cutting lyrics on the album:

The cartoon king has a tattoo of a bleeding heart /
There ain’t a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab /
But they all want the scar.

Rumors circulated that this album was going to be “political,” but the record really only dances around politics with lines like that. The album’s gorgeous closer, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” does recall ol’ Sufjan with its melding of Americanism and faith. “Peace Beneath the City” comes close to being an indictment of consumerism, and “The Devil Never Sleeps” is a picture of restless, small-town ennui.
Beam’s music-and-lyrics package is a bit denser and more mysterious this time around, Iron and Wine’s perceptive take on human nature–and the way that Beam takes the role of religion in modern life seriously–makes the album a rewarding listen. Buy or borrow and burn away.
— written by Joel Hartse

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