Iron & Wine’s album feels too polished, not risky

Courtesy of Nonesuch

“Ghost on Ghost,” the fifth studio album from singer-songwriter Iron & Wine, aka Sam Beam, dips its musical toes into a variety of genre pools. Influenced by jazz, pop and R&B, the new album is perhaps Beam’s most refined effort yet.

There are moments in “Ghost on Ghost,” like the first few seconds of “Caught in the Briars” or the saxophone solo in “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” that reflect the anxious energy of Beam’s previous records, but the album stays mostly consistent in its colorful but calm sound.

However, colorful and calm don’t quite combine so much as coexist in “Ghost on Ghost.” The album alternates between soft, folksy tracks like “Joy,” “Sundown (Back in the Briars)” and “Winter Prayers,” and funkier, vintage-sounding cuts like “The Desert Babbler” and “Singers and the Endless Sun.” Beam’s voice often feels happy and haunting at the same time, which creates an interesting effect.

“Ghost on Ghost” feels a little sleepy in general but hits home when Beam is able to augment his typical stripped-down style with the pep of more polished instruments. Album highlights “Caught in the Briars” and “New Mexico’s No Breeze” focus on Beam’s warm vocals but also add strings, horns and understated drums that develop a bright sound perfect for spring.

“Grace For Saints And Ramblers” is perhaps the driving centerpiece of “Ghost on Ghost,” a fluid, soulful cut that strikes a perfect balance between arranged and homespun.

Lyrically, the album is loose and playful, a wistful potpourri of Americana. Beam writes evocatively, rarely creating specific scenes or characters, but instead connects his songs with simple themes like love and faith.

Yet Beam’s folksy, personal style is frequently obscured by the constant echoes of jazz, R&B and easy listening resulting from the accompanying 12-piece band. This eclectic blend sounds immediately pleasant but becomes a little dull — Beam seems content to lull the listener rather than excite. Beam’s lyrics and voice are heartfelt but lack bite, resembling ’70s pop more than earnest 21st century folk.

“Ghost on Ghost” marks an impressive expansion of musical layers and has by and large done away with the rougher folk that grounded Iron & Wine earlier in the decade. The album is painted on an inventive — if not overly polished — palate. It is a warm and mellow jaunt without many twists or turns, balancing new and classic musical elements while perhaps leaning too much on older ways in the process.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 17 print edition. Peter Slattery is a staff writer. Email him at music@nyunews.com.

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