Iron and Wine
The Shepherd’s Dog
e often talk about voices of the soil. It’s tempting to hang that tag on everyone who plays on the whispers and wind-hushes of America’s Bible Belts and its open plains—the places we forget but in songs and novels, where you can’t really fly straight there and you can’t really drive around ‘cause all roads go straight through. It’s a cliché, sure, and perhaps a particularly noxious one, but it does describe the sooty largesse of such places, both in geography (boring) and history (not so boring). Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam is exactly this sort of a figure—one who summons all of our unheard, innate knowledge about these expanses and their dead folklores and makes them move in new times again. It’s easy to accuse such people of the jaded and damning ‘inauthenticity’, as though they’re graverobbing from where still, faded things should remain still, faded; indeed Iron and Wine has been accused in the past of penning whitebread versions of classic southern tropes that could be easily spoon-fed to naïve indie kids. But, the fact is that Iron and Wine recasts these histories with such a hearty awareness of language that you can’t help but feel fully immersed in them either way, new, old, or straddling the heritage of both.
After the bare, brittle lo-fi folk of Iron and Wine’s 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, Beam embraced a full-band sound for much of 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, produced by indie stalwart Brian Deck. Many expecting more of the dark, strangled material on the debut seemed disappointed in Numbered’s new clarity, its filling out of Beam’s cryptic poésie with drums and—gasp—electric guitars. Now with The Shepherd’s Dog, Beam is more removed from his stripped-back days than ever. Continuing in the vein of 2005’s Woman King EP—recorded with Deck at his Engine Music Studios—The Shepherd’s Dog is a kaleidoscopic work of roots music with a junkyard musical palette—recalling not only the bayou-pastiches of some of Beam’s favorites, specifically Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, but also the more recent clanging songshapes of Califone and Calexico (Beam recorded the In the Reins EP with the latter in 2005 and several members show up here on “Wolves (Song of Shepherd’s Dog)”).
Whereas Beam used to creep and moan all alone, he and his band seem to crawl about in thick, fetid groups of four or more. Each bit of metal, wood and tidbit stuff becomes musical on The Shepherd’s Dog—from the sawing strings and rusty, clanging percussion of “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” to the hand drums and sitar of “White Tooth Man” and the filtered vocals and shy xylophone of “Carousel.” Beam sacrifices some of the tuneful immediacy of past work for his new fascination with eerie atmospheres. In fact, Iron and Wine’s never sounded so swampy, so rich in texture and detailing. If he’s not sidestepping the dense, cluttered rhythms of “”House by the Sea”—which may or may not feature a mouth-harp—he’s doing a slow folk-polka jam against the swaying piano and drums of “Innocent Bones.” Elsewhere, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” paints in spoiled pastels—a gorgeous, wide-flung ballad with a tremendously symphonic production sense—while both “Resurrection Fern” and lead single “Boy With a Coin” are as reserved as anything here, with just acoustic and slide guitars and clapping hands allowing his cryptic, allusive tales to gain speed against them.
But, as much as his band might grow, it’s Beam’s own voice which best connects him to his back catalogue. On The Shepherd’s Dog, Beam again melds the southern literary traditions of Faulkner, Styron, and Wolfe and the region’s dense spirituality with a wide-eyed remembrance of the grasshopper summers of his childhood. He’s at once sage and naïve, love-full and cynical. And though he’s capable of an almost brutal sense of poetics (like his “tattoo of a flower on a broken wrist” from “Lovesong of the Buzzard”), he’s more shaded and withdrawn on Dog than he’s ever been. He gives glimpses of meaning that rarely evoke more than flashes of image and story—check the “I was still a beggar shaking out my stolen coat / Among the angry cemetery leaves / When they caught the king beneath the borrowed car / Righteous, drunk, and fumbling for the royal keys” section of “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car.” He sings in metaphor and allusion (“Cain got a milk-eyed mule from the auction / Abel got a telephone”), relying on a kind of verbal impressionism that swells with so much parched history.
Ultimately, it’s that broken, half-told beauty that gives Dog its mystery, but also perhaps its feel of a record you may always like but around which you may never really feel completely comfortable. In fact, it’s almost like Beam’s playing at ouroboros with both his past and our own—focusing on the same myths and southern spoils but in a jungled, heated state, ushering in haunting new takes on old, bone-dust things. In either case, given his creative arch over the last five years, it’s possible we’ll never hear him sound as clamorous again, but it’d be a shame. The Shepherd’s Dog is the album all those who’d written Beam off as just another amazing beardo mimicking gothic folk tropes needs to hear—he’s just as hairy, strange, and prescient as the street-preacher, banging out warnings and temptations in the key of everything he can get his hands on.