Ghost on Ghost
Iron & Wine
Since the release of his first album in 2002, Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine project has been defined by American folk music. As a composer, he has evolved from a more lo-fi acoustic sound to one that is far more produced, with brass, wind, and strings in addition to Beam’s signature voice. His latest offering, Ghost on Ghost, is a logical conclusion of this evolution, with reverb and echo effects and electronics abound. Electric piano invades ‘Grass Windows’, while an obnoxious amount of echo distorts the beautiful melody of ‘Joy’.
This is not to say that Beam doesn’t succeed musically, however. The album’s penultimate track, ‘Lovers’ Revolution’, triumphs with sharp brass and angry tone from Beam’s voice. The only constant musical choice that Beam has made over his career has been the use of harmony on top of his always catchy melodies. As other aspects of his music seem to fade away in favour of more conventional instrumentation and production techniques, the consistent beauty of his voice, even when doubled or tripled on top of itself, is more than welcome.
As a songwriter, Beam is known as a storyteller, painting portraits of his characters and placing them in circumstances to which his listeners can relate. Characters in Ghost are far from fully-formed, and the only discernible narrative in the entire album comes in its opening, ‘Caught in the Briars’. It’s no coincidence that this is the best song on the record.
Ghost on Ghost is by no means a bad album. However, it is perhaps the least compelling entry in Iron & Wine’s discography in comparison to his two previous masterpieces, 2004‘s Our Endless Numbered Days and 2007’s The Shepard’s Dog. It is, at the very least, an interesting case study of how artists feel obligated to innovate their sound.