Monday, September 24, 2007

the shepherd's dog

the iron & wine sound has matured in the five years since our endless numbered days, and, honestly, how could we expect otherwise? forever restless, iron & wine continually reforge themselves in the crucible of sam beam's imagination, and even the two eps they have dangled before us since 2002 - woman king, their first foray with an electric guitar, and in the reins, an impressive, collaborative rethinking of some of iron & wine's oldest tunes - only began to hint at what was to come on the shepherd's dog, their third full-length. on this album, sam beam, the man who traffics under the iron & wine moniker, whose musical growth mimics that of his named medium, has matured beyond all expectations. as with wine, beam's flavors and sub-flavors have developed shades and tones, untasted at first blush. from the rough peasant red of the creek drank the cradle, burning the throat with its coarse beauty, to the marvelously aged shepherd's dog, striking the palate with a multitude of textures, it is clear that beam's time in the cellar has produced a work with unparalleled depth and complexity.

with an artist like iron & wine, whose musical maturation is evident at every stage of his recorded career, a listener's initial tendency is to compare and contrast his releases, an impulse that must be suppressed. each time sam beam consents to putting his songs on wax, iron & wine is reinvented, reshaped to the point of nearly being unrecognizable. wistfulness for the iron & wine of yore - the fireside hymns of the creek drank the cradle, the fastidious empathy of our endless numbered days, or even for the militant order of woman king - such longing does the shepherd's dog, and iron & wine, a great disservice. to plumb this album's depths, listen to it as if in a vacuum, devoid of context, with a blank slate mind, and focus on how iron & wine sound right now.

how iron & wine sound right now is pretty damn good. the shepherd's dog starts on sure footing with the lilting "pagan angel and a borrowed car," heavy on the harmonies, fiddle, mandolin, piano, marimba, and god knows what else, instantly displaying iron & wine's enthusiasm and energy. as ever, each song is immaculately arranged and orchestrated; though beam remains the crux of the band, laying down his deceptively simple sounding melodies and whispering his woes in our ears, he is joined by an exceedingly diverse collection of musicians. what all the instruments are, i can't say - all i know is that his friends (and ex-collaborators) calexico join him at least on "wolves (song of the shepherd's dog)," providing dub-esque inflections to beam's shifty and staccato melody. having long graduated from the stifling limitations of the folk-rock genre, beam flexes his songwriting muscle on the shepherd's dog, packing it with some of the finest songs he has penned thus far, dividing the album between anxious, bluesy jams like "the devil never sleeps," with its gaudy saloon piano, and the sitar-inflected "white tooth man," and delicate loveletters to melancholy: the reverbing lullaby "carousel" and "peace beneath the city," a down-home lament with a slow cello drawl. "boy with a coin," the album's first single, falls somewhere in between: a quick, hypnotic melody, backed by a handclap chorus that changes rhythm with the song's, lulling the listener into musical paralysis. the shepherd's dog closes with a waltz, a serene, humble song of simplicity and casual happiness that belies beam's overarching dissatisfaction and uncertainty. "flightless bird, american mouth" seems to resurrect, even if just for a few minutes, a ghost of americana, barnyard dances and girls with braided hair, ghosts that no longer haunt beam's lyrics.

sam beam has always been a master storyteller, metastasizing everyday incidents into profoundly raw and emotional vignettes of the human experience, capable of making our hearts ache for the tragedies of strangers. the characters of the shepherd's dog are his most human yet - flawed, suffering, and alone. this album speaks of ordinary heartbreak, of everyday tragedies that we have grown cold to - automobile accidents, absent fathers, unhappy marriages. yet through all these challenges, americans have kept their faith. inescapable in contemporary america - our president honors jesus as his greatest inspiration, having disdained our longstanding pledge to divorce church from state, while others, blinded by the limitations of two thousand year old words, blame homosexuals for inciting terrorism - but the faith that has inspired sam beam is of a humbler variety; the faith of mothers, praying for their sons at war, the hopes of boys whose fathers don't come home, the jealousy of brothers. "peace beneath the city," the album's penultimate song, is perhaps its most sorrowful, a song of wanting nothing more than a modicum of certainty about the future (or the present), a cry for assurance in a world where faith is not always enough. to create the desire for such a simple thing, iron & wine flesh out beam's quietly earnest lyrics with a languorous pedal steel, solitary handclaps, and the faint beats of a tabla, as beam mutters "black valley, peace beneath the city / where women tell the weather but the never ever tell you what they pray / they pray, 'give me a yellow brick road and a japanese car and benevolent change.'"

for the album's midpoint, "innocent bones," iron & wine do not abstract faith, but use it as a direct inspiration; here, cain and abel, born of the memory of our lost eden, are beam's protagonists. in "innocent bones," a gently lilting tune carried by sparse piano, a washboard, and beam's guitar, cain buys a knife and abel a bag of weed, and beam lays a bet that "if christ came back, he'd find us in a poker game." and while there are other direct references to christianity in "innocent bones" itself, the album as a whole generally focuses on unspoken faith, and what it has begat - american confusion. one track that highlights our national uncertainty is "the devil never sleeps," one of the most musically compelling songs on the album. upbeat with strong piano jazz and a tantalizing pedal steel in the background, flushed with energy and vigor, "the devil never sleeps" is still suffused with that tangible sense of feeling lost that muddles and confuses our everyday lives. one of its most telling lines succinctly captures our national nervousness: "all of us lost at the crosswalk waiting for the other to go / someone bet a dollar that my daddy wasn't coming home." as iron & wine is wont, the beauty of the shepherd's dog's arrangement beguiles the listener, tricking us into falsely believing that its lyrical message is as soothing as its sounds. "carousel," another standout track, entices and enchants, lulling us into a sweet stupor, even as beam sings "your grieving girls all died in their sleep / so the dogs all went unfed / a great dream of bones all piled on the bed."

after circulating for the internet equivalent of millennia, "boy with a coin" has become the ubiquitous face of the shepherd's dog, with good reason - it's a great song. but it's often difficult to tease out the meanings of songs when they arrive in an inbox devoid of context, which is how it came about that i didn't understand "boy with a coin" until i listened to the entire album. with my 20/20 of hindsight, i see now that the lyrics of "boy with a coin" are the heart of the shepherd's dog, the key that opens the lock of its meaning. the song's setting is in the debris of an automobile accident, "when god left the ground to circle the world," an idea that i believe explains the entire album. given iron & wine's history for favoring animals in his titles ("lion's mane," "the rooster moans," etc.), the shepherd's dog does not, at first glance, carry any larger meanings, any subtext that we need to read into. the portrait of a dog on the album's cover should confirm this assessment, as does "wolves (song of the shepherd's dog)" - the dog is merely an object of a song, the shepherd the same. but, while the shepherd's dog is definitely not a concept album, it does have hidden meanings, buried deep in its lyrical heart. through sophisticated use of metaphor and allegory, sam beam subtly, yet directly, challenges our modernity and our faith. the titular shepherd is no mean peasant, toiling in the hills - for beam has long outgrown any need for idyllic, pastoral metaphors - but none other than christ himself. despite the regular allusions to faith throughout the album, however, it is not about christ - it is about his dog. the dog is the essential instrument of the conventional shepherd, warding away wolves and other predators from the tender flock, too weak to protect itself and too dumb to do much else. but the dog must also direct the sheep, away from treacherous cliffs and unstable footings, guiding the flock to green pastures. the shepherd is the lord of the flock, able to decide its fate, but the dog is its true redeemer. if "god left the ground to circle the world," then maybe we cannot rely on the shepherd any longer. we must look for the dogs in our midst, guiding and protecting us, and put our faith in them, for only they can soothe our fears and show us the right path to follow, away from the precipice on which we are balanced.

iron & wine - "boy with a coin," "innocent bones"

buy the shepherd's dog from sub pop.

listen to the shepherd's dog streaming at iron & wine's myspace.

live iron & wine photos taken by gregory william wasserstrom and stephen dowling.

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