Iron and Wine: “Kiss Each Other Clean”

I’ll confess, I’ve never been a big fan of Iron and Wine. I liked Women King.  The song, not the EP.  Even with that I go in and out.  The cover of Such Great Heights was sweet and pretty.  That’s about it.  So the new record, Kiss Each Other Clean, really wasn’t on my radar.

A friend asked me to take a listen.  Reviews have been incredibly positive.  He had been waiting for this; he was excited.  He found himself disappointed after spending time with the music.  You see, to him, this album felt like it was made just to sell CDs.  Which, I guess, is the point of recording and releasing music.  Musicians rarely write and record for the hell of it – they want people to hear their music.  And if they want to continue being able to make music, they have to sell music.  They might bleed music, but unless they take a vow of poverty and learn how to rehab thrift store guitars, they have to find some way to make a buck.  My friend knows this, he just released an album himself.  But the record still didn’t feel right to him.

After listening, my friend’s point is well taken.  The album feels forced.  This is a collection of songs designed to sell individual MP3s, not entire CDs.  Which is not to say that it’s bad.  It can’t be if you want to bump up downloads for particular songs.  But Kiss Each Other Clean is definitely an album that has been constructed with the current realities of the music market in mind.  Which seems to be: make an album with a few good songs that will be downloaded individually and push the complete album after the fact.  I’m not sure if this is a good thing.

I thought that I was going to like Kiss Each Other Clean, I really did.  The music is a departure from what I have always found too “eh” about Iron and Wine.  It started positively enough.  I wanted to hear the opener, Walking Far From Home, a second time.  And then again.  It’s the type of song that you learn the words to after a couple of times around the block.  More importantly you want to learn and sing along, assigning your own meaning to it when you’re alone and wondering what comes next existentially.  I fought the urge to hit repeat and let the music roll on.  Which was a mistake.  Me and Lazarus lost me right away – there was no oomph.  It meandered out of the gate with a cutesy bass line and never recovered.   Tree By the River channels Iron and Wine’s inner Ben Gibbard…”To a potty mouthed girl…a pretty pair of blue-eyed birds…” and I’m not sure Ben Gibbard is channeling his Ben Gibbard-ness anymore.

Monkeys Uptown is great.  It’s spare and almost sexy and a little sinister.  Rabbit Will Run is hypnotic and dark pop and the percussion will ensure it worms its way into your head, though the flute is weird.  Skip through a few more songs and get to Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me, the closer.  It is a nice funk-folk infused five and a half minutes.  There’s even a couple of “everybody solo” breakdowns and is a good note for the end of the album.

There are a four, if not gems, then good cuts on Kiss Each Other Clean.  It’s an album that seems infused with its influences and not necessarily in a good way.  It feels like you’ve heard the record before, but can’t quite place where.   This is definitely pop.  Or as close to a pop record as Iron and Wine can actually come.  Which is nice, but the use of saxophone (though not a liberal sprinkling of sax there’s enough to be a theme) throughout the record comes dangerously close to “smooth-jazz-esque” at times.

There is nothing wrong with making a record that is more accessible than what you’ve done before.  It should be encouraged – the more good and accessible music, the better.  But you have to do it well.  The main problem is that Kiss Each Other Clean is not that it’s pop.  It’s that it never feels like a fully fleshed out album and ends up not really going anywhere.

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