NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Sam Beam of Iron & Wine makes music for people who listen with headphones. Sure, you could check out his music on a computer or pop his CD into your car stereo. But you’d be missing so much.
“I like as a listener to find some little percussive elements or some little throwaway melodies in there that you only really catch if you’re listening on the headphones,” Beam said. “It’s also fun in the mixing stage to do stuff like that. It creates an extra level of interest hopefully.”
Beam has achieved an extra level of interest in his music by creating dense sound collages that dance and move like fabric in the wind, yet remain true to the wandering spirit he unveiled while using an acoustic guitar and a four-track recorder to learn the craft.
“Ghost on Ghost,” the 38-year-old’s fifth album as Iron & Wine, is his most complex yet, blooming with large arrangements and tiny flourishes so complex they little resemble that spare early sound that forced the listener to lean in. Over time he added producer Brian Deck, gradually included percussion and more complex instrumentation, strings and horns until he’s arrived at something like indie R&B crossed with jazz and ’60s pop in an acoustic engineer’s imagination.
“I don’t like the idea of putting the same record out twice,” the South Carolina-born Beam said in a phone interview from the home he shares with his wife and five young daughters outside Austin, Texas. “I think that’s kind of short-sighted and it’s not very fun to do. I come from a visual arts background. I went to an art school and you learn very quickly there that you’re only as good as your next idea, not so much what you’ve got going on at the moment. And so I embraced that. It sunk in at an early point. I like to keep working and keep changing. It’s a hopeful, optimistic thing to think and sit about what you could do next. Maybe it’s blind optimism.”
Like many artists who are hard to pin down, critics found Beam exciting and they’ve been talking him up since 2002 when he released “The Creek Drank the Cradle.” Unlike most of those unpredictable artists, Beam also found an audience that doesn’t seem to mind. Each album has gotten progressively more popular and the last, 2011’s “Kiss Each Other Clean,” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 all-genre album chart.
“Ghost on Ghost” is even more ambitious with large melodies and arrangements made up of dozens of moving parts. Those with headphones jacked will find a jazzy breakdown in opener “Caught in the Briars,” a mouth harp that serves incongruously as a bouncy counterpoint to a smoky saxophone on “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” a menacing B3 Hammond organ line lurking underneath the chorus on “Singers and the Endless Song” and the strange call-and-response chorus hidden in the grandeur of “Lovers’ Revolution,” a gang of street toughs ready to spill out of an alley.
Ben Bridwell, Band of Horses frontman and friend of Beam’s from back in their days growing up in nearby small towns in South Carolina, says the first time Beam surprised him it was with a tape of his music. The film- and painting-obsessed Beam had been working on music essentially in secret and when he finally played it for Bridwell, it came as something of a shock. He’s continued to surprise his friend over the years with his musical adventurousness.
“It’s funny,” Bridwell said. “You think you know Sam for a minute because of what he’s just done and he completely exceeds your expectations or what you think he might go into, and he ends up doing it flawlessly as well. He’s actually one of these jack of all trades characters who’s really good at doing all those things. Instead of jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a master of all of them.”
The art student in him has Beam thinking ahead already. He’s not concerned about the big picture. He hopes his album sells well and he hopes to take advantage of the opportunities that come along if it does. But it really hasn’t changed anything about the way he works. “At the end of the day it’s you with the sketch pad or the guitar or whatever,” Beam said. “
At the end of the day, it still comes back with you and you have to keep working. You cannot predict public taste. That’s why I always just trusted mine. I make music and hope people enjoy it — but when they do it’s always a surprise. A nice surprise, but not one that I expect to always be there.”