Iron & Wine’s Ghost on Ghost slides in with a weird jam of whining guitars and organs, with odd beats strung around them—only for a cymbal crash to cut the section off and have “Caught in the Briars” come in with a that familiar Iron and Wine sound. No, it is not the fall-asleep-over-an-acoustic-guitar sound that made Iron & Wine rise to prominence, but the Simon and Garfunkel-like radio-pop with a full and talented band that it’s been dipping into since The Shepherd’s Dog.
Sam Beam, the man behind Iron & Wine, has been slowly expanding since his debut effort, The Creek Drank the Cradle, and Ghost on Ghost is another point of maturity in this movement.
The track “The Desert Babbler” brings out a nod to the matured music that inspires Beam, with “oooo”s and “ahhhh”s sitting dainty over his voice. It rides the line between Iron & Wine’s idiosyncrasies and radio-friendly pop tunes of the 1950s.
“Joy” is a great nugget among the rest of this album. Where the most recent Iron & Wine sound is filled to the brim, “Joy” comes back to the naked music that Beam started with.
Beam’s voice echoes within the “heartfelt, silly sort of bumbling tune,” as he puts it, but still, a warm glow of joy from the ease of his troubled mind translates well.
There are vocal phrases and instrument choices on Ghost on Ghost that come close to Sufjan Stevens’ work—namely the section where Beam sings, “And it all came down to you and I,” on “Grace for Saints and Ramblers.” Though it’s not imitative of Stevens, it is in the same vein, with jingling bells and an electric piano riff that sits far from prominence, and fills out the section more than one might notice.
A soft, Hammond-like organ, brass raising tension, and 8-bit synth make their little introductions on “Grass Widows.” The quick entry and exit of these sounds exemplify the patience and attentiveness Beam has for small, golden moments in his music. Where his first album had airy samples and lo-fi shimmers of guitar, his latest work introduces a broader range of instrumentation that taps into this patience.
“Singers and the Endless Song” has stripped down verses that also exemplify Beam’s willingness to explore, with little sound but percussion and his tender vocals, which are capped with fluid piano lines and brass additions that add a fullness more fluid than obtrusive—a quality that Ghost on Ghost retains from end to end.
Even less obtrusive are tracks like “Sundown (Back to the Briars),” in which tranquil moments of cymbal rushes bleed into clunking xylophones that accent layers upon layers of Beam’s looping vocals. As if returning us back to the “Briars,” where the album started, string arrangements build and reach over the rest of the sound, like a soundtrack to returning home from a journey across an Iron & Wine soundscape.
“Winter Prayers” is another example of this, with moments that resonate with older Iron & Wine material. Beam’s acoustic strumming pulls the song along by the hand into colder places more quaint and calm than the rest of Ghost on Ghost.
While calmness and movements away from tension define most of the album, its best moment defies these qualities and comes halfway through “Lovers’ Revolution.” The drums take up pace, and a saxophone feud bursts out in colorful freedom.
Though the entire song is notable amidst the rest of Ghost on Ghost, this moment, along with other jazzy interjections that peep in on the beginnings and ends of some tracks, are the most compelling parts of the album.
Iron & Wine is not a project that people gravitate toward for the excitement, and for this the music often comes off as trite. Despite that, Beam’s impeccable lyricism and beautiful patience behind his guitar bring out a great feeling that a sea of other musicians with acoustic guitars will never be able to achieve.
Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost tracklist:
- “Caught in the Briars”
- “The Desert Babbler”
- “Low Light Buddy of Mine”
- “Grace for Saints and Ramblers”
- “Grass Widows”
- “Singers and the Endless Song”
- “Sundown (Back in the Briars)”
- “Winter Prayers”
- “New Mexico’s No Breeze”
- “Lovers’ Revolution”
- “Baby Center Stage”