By Jon Jacobs
September 27, 2007 | It is said that change will move us, erase all that we were and leave us blank, waiting for the next adventure. Sometimes this change is unexpected, causing an erosion of the mind that unsettles us. Still, change can be needed, beautiful and fundamentally good. And sometimes it is exceptionally good.
With The Shepherd's Dog (Sub Pop label: Sept. 25), the latest release from Sam Bean, AKA "Iron and Wine," we find his normally subtle and humbly quiet voice being set to walls of instrumentation, tribal drums, and, God forbid, electric guitars. The acoustic guitar is still present, but drowned behind the album's lush and polished production, a movement away from the traditional folk-acoustic 'lo-fi' nature of Bean's previous efforts.
This journey from bare-bones folk to full-band-one-man-instrumentalist first found its way on his last effort, 2005's Woman King EP, with its rich electric/acoustic infusion that marked an exciting turn to the future. Here the switch is in full form. Melodies swirl over your head in waves of sonic epiphany, recalling the calming warmth of great singer-songwriter albums such as Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.
The album's slick production however, never serves as an obstacle the listener must overcome to enjoy the tracks. Bean, unlike other songwriters who allow production to be a barrier shrouding the shoddy song structure and movements of the music, uses it fully to his advantage. The album's focus still is that soft voice and its often heartbreaking honesty that makes you swear you've heard the song before. The song crafting is still in full form, on par if not superior to the entirety of his catalog.
As if to complement the common comparison to Simon and Garfunkel, Bean's voice is doubled in fifth and fourth harmonies, insomuch that some of the tracks wouldn't feel out of place onParsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme. That is not to say, however, that Dog lacks originality. In fact, it reveals a confident and independent artist who, rather than running from his influences, embraces them with full intention and fervor.
Lyrically, the album is a mixed one. As always, there is a presence of heartache and loss, but here the focus is often replaced by religious turmoil, and political injection. Unlike his previous LP Our Endless Numbered Days, with its harmonious and peaceful delivery of intimate and personal love stories, Dog finds our beloved Bean venturing into a brooding anger at times.
Songs such as Pagan Angel and Borrowed Car deliver a sense of immediacy with lyrics such as "Every morning we found one more machine to mock our ever waning patience at the well. Every evening she'd descend the mountain stealing socks and singing something good where all the horses fell. Like a snake within the wilted garden wall."
Even with the new lyrical direction, Bean hasn't lost his ability to craft the flowing love songs that brought him renown. The soft mid-tempo ballad Resurrection Fern finds Bean recalling a lost love with a tenderness unachieved by musicians twice his age. The heartbreaking lyrics "and we'll undress beside the ashes of the fire, both our tender bellies wound in baling wire. All the more a pair of underwater pearls than the oak tree and its resurrection fern."
Though the album bids farewell to intimacy brought by the stripped-down nature of his previous releases, The Shepherd's Dog opens the flood-gate of Sam Bean's musical genius. Never before has he sounded so confident in his song crafting abilities, and as a result Dog doesn't so much play as much as it shines -- brightly and proudly.
If musical change sends albums like this, then bring it on.