Iron & Wine
The Shepherd's Dog
Douglas Heselgrave's #2 album for 2007
John Metzger's #4 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed October 24, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
"No one is the savior they would like to be" – Sam Beam
Sam Beam, the creative force behind Iron & Wine, has a musical philosophy that he is trying to define. His is an insistent and troubling one with which he must have wrestled as he struggled to bring his newest collection of songs into the light. Arriving almost three years after the immensely popular and critically acclaimed Our Endless Numbered Days, Iron & Wine’s follow-up outing The Shepherd’s Dog does not follow an easy or predictable path. Alternately frustrating and rewarding, the album is, in many ways, a logical extension of the lyrical and melodic ideas that reached fruition and achieved perfect expression on his previous endeavor.
Iron & Wine first emerged in 2002 with The Creek Drank the Cradle, a very stripped-down affair that was characterized by its hushed, almost whispered vocals and its minimalist guitar playing. Though its rudimentary instrumentation made the album sound, at times, like the work of a talented beginner, there were certain flourishes as well as a hint of sophistication beneath the surface of each composition that made it clear that the simplicity was a choice rather than a limitation imposed by a lack of skill. Beam, with his "Unibomber" beard and log-cabin fashion-sense, may have looked like a homesteader, but his background as an academic and visual artist contributed a certain irony and postmodern wit to the lyrics and delivery of this deceptively obvious collection of songs.
When Our Endless Numbered Days, Iron & Wine’s second, full-length album, was released in 2004, it represented a huge artistic leap forward for Beam. With its swirling, Technicolor, three-dimensional arrangements and beautiful acoustic playing, the set explored many of the themes developed on The Creek Drank the Cradle. Its gorgeous, lush instrumentation and angelic singing perfectly supported Beam’s excellent songs, and as a result, Our Endless Numbered Days remains one of the best acoustic albums of the new millennium. Surely Beam realized that this would be a hard act to follow.
As an interim move, Beam released an EP entitled Woman King in 2005. In retrospect, it — along with his subsequent mini-album In the Reins, which was recorded with Calexico in 2006 — hinted at the direction in which he would head on The Shepherd’s Dog. From the beginning, Beam’s singing has never been very assertive. He treats each line of his lyrics equally and without emphasis, delivering each in a kind of singsong deadpan that sounds as much like Sufi or Indian Karnactic vocalizations as it does like anything from Western tradition. Although he chose to deliver his material like Allen Ginsberg chanting the Kaddish, both EPs worked because of the way they were mixed. The vocals, while lacking in emphasis, were clearly discernable because they were separated and supported as they rode on a bed of differentiated sound.
On The Shepherd’s Dog, Beam takes his approach to downplaying the vocals even further. Perhaps, he is commenting on the way that the lyrics and the singer are always the focus of a song. Perhaps, he consciously is trying to make them an element of a piece of music that shares equal footing with everything else. Indeed, all of the instruments seem to be miked and mixed without separation, so that the vocals have no more emphasis than anything else in the songs. While this is an interesting approach, it does not always serve the music to its best advantage. The problem is that Beam’s lyrics are so interesting that the listener is forced to spend an inordinate amount of attention trying to hear and extract them from inside the mix. While egalitarianism is a noble concept, all great art is the product of a certain amount of decision making. Unfortunately, it initially sounds like no decisions were made during the recording of The Shepherd’s Dog. This, of course, is a choice in itself, and Beam effectively forces his listeners to confront it.
Often, The Shepherd’s Dog sounds like a rehearsal or a jam where no exclusion or hierarchy of ideas is imposed. On many of its tracks, simple percussive effects that normally would enhance the song’s rhythm are mixed on equal ground with the vocals and guitar. The result of this approach is that when the new songs initially are heard, they often come across like an indistinguishable mess where the center of interest is impossible to identify.
After listening to The Shepherd’s Dog repeatedly, I came to realize that Beam’s approach was forcing me to reconsider the role of different parts of a song; he made me think about how conditioned my expectations were of what a recording should sound like. While my intellect could appreciate this, the part of me that simply wanted to be drawn into the sway of Beam’s lyrics and beautiful playing was immensely frustrated. I wanted the lyrics and melody to stand above the rhythm. I didn’t want the singing to be a texture that was on par with the percussion or second guitar. After a while, Beam’s willful egalitarianism and conscious technological naivete started to become grating.
I, then, found myself fantasizing about breaking into Beam’s house, stealing the master tapes, and going into a studio to re-mix the album to how I wanted it to sound. Perhaps, this is what Beam wanted his listeners to do. His choices certainly have made me listen to The Shepherd’s Dog with an intensity that I otherwise would not have. I kept playing the songs over and over again, fighting with them, tumbling through the lyrics and arrangements, and cursing the perverse percussions that attack and threaten to drown out his vocals. There is a jewel in here, another masterpiece here, I kept telling myself. Why are you making me work so hard to hear it?
With Our Endless Numbered Days, it was so easy. Every song delivered an instantly satisfying hit of beautiful music. The Shepherd’s Dog is a time-release capsule that is slow to dissolve and digest. Yet, I was determined to stick with it, and its lyrics emerged out of the thick, primordial soup of the faux-drunken, Appalachian noise. Beautiful lyrics. Wistful tales of lost dogs. Innocent bones, and love songs of buzzards. They all danced and gulped for air between the speedy, metallic, mandolin riffs. After many hours spent listening to the music, a keyboard melody emerged that seemed to carry through all of the songs in the middle section of the album. It was lovely and lyrical — a dance of the spheres. Why didn’t I hear it before?
A week later, The Shepherd’s Dog’s code had been cracked. The arrangements have ordered and aligned themselves, and Beam’s singing and lyrics have finally shimmied through the sea of willful instrumentation to assert themselves into my consciousness. The Shepherd’s Dog is not Our Endless Numbered Days, and I’m starting to think that this is a good thing. The former album was perfect. Beam had the sense to realize that it represented the highpoint of lyrical and musical alchemy, and in making its follow-up, he left its perfection alone and untroubled. The Shepherd’s Dog is not the flawless, dinner-party soundtrack or the Sunday-morning-hangover music that Our Endless Numbered Days is. It is distressing, bold, and distinct, and I’ll keep on listening to it well past the time that I would have put it aside had it been simply a shadow or recreation of its more accessible predecessor.
In an industry that rewards those who play it safe above all else, Sam Beam has proven himself to be an artist with integrity and vision. By breaking away from a successful formula and following his intuition, Iron & Wine took a huge gamble with The Shepherd’s Dog, and the result is another classic album. ˝
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box