Sam Beam, Iron and Wine's eternally bearded songwriter, is responsible for some of his generation's most affecting records, from the intimate folk of 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days to the sprawling psychedelia of 2007's The Shepherd's Dog and the soulful classicist pop of 2011's Kiss Each Other Clean. As Beam's sonic aspirations have swelled, there's been one consistent element: the influence of producer Brian Deck.
"I like consistency," Beam says. "Brian's very creative and certainly has a subversive attitude toward pop music, which I like. I also like to switch things up – none of the records have had the same personnel or players, and we keep trying to push into slightly different territory each time with some new elements. But I like the idea of having at least one consistent person with me.
"And at this point, we kind of have a shorthand. We can just look over and know when we're treading in familiar territory and when we need to push a little harder and try something else. Or when we stumble into something – we can look at each other and smile, enjoy the moment. Because we've been there together. I think that's important."
The duo's fifth collaboration, Ghost on Ghost, is the messiest, loosest-sounding Iron and Wine album to date. Working with a huge gang of musicians (including horn and string sections), Beam and Deck sought out an organic, "live-in-the-room" mix, allowing the players to interact in real time.
"I made the joke where I felt like Sinatra," Beam says, "(standing there) with a cigarette and a martini. But I only played guitar on three or four of these songs. And I'm a lazy bum, but it wasn't because I was trying to relegate responsibilities. I like variety, and the easiest way to make it not sound like the other records is to not play guitar, because the other records are so saturated with guitar. So I found myself sitting there watching people play, and it was fun, because you could listen."
It was a direct reaction to the previous two Iron and Wine records, which were sculpted and refined, possessing what Beam calls an "anxious tension."
"I felt like this group of songs was different," Beam says. "They weren't quite as anxious. They had narrative elements, and they unfolded gently sometimes and a little more rough sometimes. But I felt like they had just a looser, more relaxed quality to them, so we tried to reflect that in the arrangements. There are several records that we talked about going into it, like New Orleans R&B, funk/R&B stuff, and obviously jazz. But at the same time, also a lot of Burt Bacharach and Harry Nilsson and Paul McCartney – they have kind this homespun but symphonic essence, with these fun string arrangements, but at the same time there are parts that are recorded very roughly, where you can feel the frayed, human edges."
Beam's most proud of the string arrangements, which recall everything from classic pop to disco to country. "All those things don't exist in a bubble," he says. "Disco strings came out of R&B strings, and R&B strings came out of country. They were all listening to one another. The sophistication came from, like, Lawrence Welk. We had a ball playing with them – I love that stuff. I'm just a sucker for melody, so strings and even the vocal arrangements give you a chance to add more little hints of melody going along with the main melody line. It's just fun.
"(It's) a lot of touchstones of American music," Beam says. "It's another style of potpourri that me and my friends seem to be into. There's country music going on at the same time as Motown sounds and also prog-rock. It's all mixed in."
That eclecticism is the album's defining charm, from the swampy, horn-fueled swing of "Lovers Revolution" to the schizoid "Caught in the Briars," which morphs from breezy folk-pop to a left-field Latin-jazz coda. But the album's jaw-dropping centerpiece is the soulful, shape-shifting "Grace for Saints and Ramblers."
"At some point, it was headed toward this real African territory," Beam says. "But I worked on it some more, and what we finally ended up with is a big mix of all of these things. Parts of it sound like the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, but at the same time, we pushed it into Sam & Dave territory, an R&B revue kinda thing. In my ear, I hear all these things going on at the same time, which is kind of fun. That's the elasticity of it – you put different shades on it and see what it does to the lyrics."
And as a lyricist, Beam continues to paint surreal, evocative portraits. Instead of writing based on a concrete lyrical concept, he prefers to scour his work for "binding factors" that give his songs a thematic connective tissue.
"I don't sit down and write the record from beginning to end," Beam says. "I'm kind of always writing. And so when it comes time to put a record out, I end up with a bunch of finished songs and a bunch of pieces of songs laying around. There are a few songs on there that I dabbled with for The Shepherd's Dog, and some that are brand new. But inevitably, you get to the point where you're ready to go in the studio, and you say, 'What songs do I have that would work together, and what would be the binding factor in some of these songs?'
"So on Shepherd's Dog, I found a bunch of songs that had a dog in 'em, so we put them together for that one. The last one seemed to have a bunch of songs with this river image, so those kind of got lumped together. This one, there seemed to be this sensual quality. There were a lot of songs with this couple – this couple against the world, or this couple dealing with something together, and that seemed to be the binding factor between a lot of these songs."
For Beam, his partnership with Deck remains a binding factor in itself.
"I can understand why a lot of people would want to work with other people and shake the tree, so to speak," he says. "But I have trouble shaking the tree."