Kiss Each Other Clean, the title of Iron & Wine’s fourth LP, purposefully or accidentally draws its title from the similarly titled leadoff track from LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, “Dance Yourself Clean.” And with its leadoff home run of a track, “Walking Far From Home,” the parallel doesn’t seem to be as inappropriate as it should be. Though Sam Beam’s solo-project-turned-band has always shown an appreciation for, or even a desire to become, fully-produced music (he has covered The Flaming Lips and The Postal Service), “Walking Far From Home” offers genuine electronic backing and even has a rhythm that one would normally associate with more experimental music, not stripped-down folk. The b-side to “Walking Far From Home” titled “Biting Your Tail” takes it even further to electro-pop status.
Unfortunately, this is where the progression of sound ends. Iron & Wine does sound more produced throughout the record, but it isn’t necessarily a step-up, but, rather, it is a stab in the dark for a bigger sound that works. And, though it is sometimes the case that bigger is better, it is only half true for Sam Beam. “Walking Far From Home” could be argued to be the best track he has written yet (“Upward Over The Mountain” and “Passing Afternoon” would be, all, ‘fuck ‘dat Cosores), but reaching early album cuts like “Monkeys Uptown” and “Me And Lazarus” are actually weighed down by their ambition. One of Iron & Wine’s chief draws were how personal and timeless Beam could sound, drawing the audience in to sit on his lap while he hummed them a song. Longtime fans, even those who want to follow him anywhere, will likely feel disappointed that no tracks as touching or memorable as his early work will be found past the opening track.
Not that there is a bad song in the bunch. In fact, listeners unfamiliar with Beam’s earlier songwriting might quite enjoy the Kiss Each Other Clean. But the initiated will see the production touches for what they are: unnecessary and distracting. “Me And Lazarus” is accentuated by a distracting saxophone and would sound quite brilliant if everything but Beam and his guitar were dropped from the song. Lyrically the songs don’t pack the punch that Iron & Wine is capable of, either. The f-bombs in “Monkeys Uptown” sound unnatural, and the “ice cream cone” line in otherwise powerful “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me” is just plain bad.
Beam is a genius at melody, and nearly every track on the album is hummable, but yet they shy away from being memorable across the board. “Half Moon” and “Trees By The River” are the strongest of the bunch, but still I find myself craving more from them. Or, really, less. And that is not to say that Sam Beam should give-up trying to add more parts to his songs or elevate the Iron & Wine’s sound beyond the previously successful coffee-shop ballads. The Shepherd’s Dog, their previous album, also showed increased instrumentation and production, but they stayed within the confines of taste. But mostly, the listener will leave Kiss Each Other Clean craving something lyrically to hold onto, to become affected beyond the immediate emotional stirs of the pure prettiness of songs like “Godless Brother In Love.” As weird as it may sound, the electro-pop that was flirted with on the “Walking Far From Home” single was probably the direction that should have been followed. At least then, the record wouldn’t have been the first forgettable album in Iron & Wine’s career.