Not all evolutions are created equal. Take your average pop-music career arc: Some are defined by radical transformation (Tom Waits reinventing himself on Swordfishtrombones, Radiohead going from OK Computer to Kid A, and so on); some follow gradual, more calculable trajectories (pretty much the majority of artists); some, frankly, don’t happen at all (I’ll be a gentleman and won’t mention any names, but you know who you are). Sam Beam, otherwise known as Iron & Wine, can be neatly filed as a gradualist here, but if you take a serious look at his home-recorded, lo-fi origins (2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, 2003’s The Sea & The Rhythm EP) and compare them to 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, you begin to understand that unlike many of his peers, what Beam has achieved is an evolution that is radical yet (and this is the extraordinary thing) perfectly natural and organic.
Of course, many saw this coming after 2005’s Woman King EP and Beam’s collaboration with Calexico (the wonderful In the Reins EP), both of which marked a clear progression from his earliest material and pointed the way toward The Shepherd’s Dog. Nevertheless, the production still comes across as a bit shocking at times. (Exhibit A: the iktar-strumming country/Bhangra fusion of “White Tooth Man,” which I never thought I would ever hear on an Iron & Wine record.) Fortunately, Beam’s impeccable songwriting provides a solid anchor for whatever alien territory he may choose to take us to.
In a back catalog that includes such incredible gems as “Jesus the Mexican Boy” and “Lion’s Mane,” opener “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” may very well be Beam’s most breathtaking. Instrumentally the song is all about movement, with steady rhythms and a busy production that communes a sense of perpetual motion, and the lyrics, like a lot of Beam’s writing, carries a Dylan by way of Flannery O’Connor feel. The song’s “Pagan Angel” reminds me a lot of O’Connor’s Misfit from the short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find, especially when he speaks at the song’s end: “My love is one made to break every bended knee,” which for whatever reason immediately summons an image of the Misfit putting down the story’s helpless victim.
It’s the fusion of Biblical imagery and a very subtle, almost secret violence that seems to animate The Shepherd’s Dog‘s lyrical schema throughout. “Innocent Bones” takes the canonical violence of Cain and Abel and nicely shuffles it against a hard-plucked banjo and Beam’s nebulized vocals, which almost seem to pass into air by the end. Images of devils, switchblades, and country ennui populate the New Orleans piano-stomper “The Devil Never Sleeps,” and “Resurrection Fern,” a sweet country ballad, summons guns and “amens” over images of dead dogs and the stuffed “bear claws” that murdered them. This kind of stuff is straight out of Southern Gothic literature, and it’s easy to imagine Beam at home, probably porchside, swigging moonshine in between pages of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.
The Shepherd’s Dog is an easy album to admire, as is Beam’s ceaseless urge to push himself beyond his previous work. It’s a great thing to hear an artist always taking new risks and futzing around with his own formula; it’s not nearly as common as it should be. It almost seems like with every new record, Sam Beam fulfills the promise he made with the last, the one kept here being Woman King‘s oath for ornament and large, complicated production. On this level, as in every other, it succeeds brilliantly, to the point where I think The Shepherd’s Dog is probably Iron & Wine’s best record to date (Beam has never once even made a mediocre album, so this says a lot). God help us for what he may try to do next.