When Sam Beam stepped into the spotlight on Iron and Wine's 2002 debut, he was a novelty act. That acoustic guitar, that soothingly sweet tenor voice, that flowing mountain-man beard? Pop music hadn't seen anything like it since the heyday of Cat Stevens. But Beam's songs — sincere folk churners full of backwoods beauty and subtle psychedelia — had a weird magic all their own. Since then, indie rock has been overrun by extravagantly bearded, achingly earnest balladeers, but Beam started running away from the pack on 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, which juiced limpid melodies with dashes of Appalachian folk and West African rock.
Now, on Kiss Each Other Clean, Beam has gone pop — at least the kind of pop you might have heard on a free-form radio station occupied by a band of hippie visionaries in 1971. Beam's lovely voice anchors melodies of crystalline clarity and unshakable catchiness. But the music won't stay still, moving from stormy psychedelic rock ("Rabbit Will Run") to white-guy funk ("Big Burned Hand") to what sounds like a Beach Boys version of a country-western ballad ("Half Moon"). Beam's tunes pull you merrily along, but his songs don't shy from the big issues, tackling war, politics and sex. On "Me and Lazarus," Beam seems to poke fun at his own minor celebrity: "Never made the local news/Guess I had nowhere else to go." Don't believe it: Beam's headed someplace, and it's worth following.