Music Reviews
The Shepherd's Dog

Iron & Wine The Shepherd's Dog

(Sub Pop) Rating - 9/10

I always imagined Sam Beam to live deep within a forest, surrounded by a dense wall of green trees and overgrown plants, where he sits inside a log cabin and writes his music. It isn't hard to picture, with Beam's perversion for simple folk (2004's Our Endless Numbered Days solidified that), but while Beam always presented himself as a solid songwriter, he was marred by that dense wall he was surrounded in; it wasn't long before it simply faded away. If a tree falls in a forest and no one's around to hear it, does it make a sound?

So if Our Endless Numbered Days was created in a forest, The Shepherd's Dog was crafted in a clearing, a crop circle encircling Beam's log cabin. Not so much a departure from his simple folk than a natural progression and growth (it works as a foundation that he simply builds upon), The Shepherd's Dog features solid songwriting complemented by hefty emotion. By divulging in experiments and keeping it understated, Iron & Wine has crafted an album that plays with our heads and our hearts, and sometimes our sweet tooth.

This playful ambiguity, offset by Shepherd's sometimes lo-fi exterior, is what keeps Iron & Wine's folk pop outing all the more inviting. Beam's gruff voice wavers while pianos jangle and shake in Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car, his dreary lyricism trailing, not holding back, its luxurious waltz to its finish. The wispy quality to the melodic, haunting White Tooth Man gives it a ghost story quality, modern folklore that seems to roll off Beam's tongue ("And the white tooth man who sold me a gun/A map of Canaan and a government bond/Said, 'I love this town, but it ain't the same'/The ski mask ripped as he was putting it on").

Different variations pad out The Shepherd's Dog, the waterlogged Carousel a whispered secret through the waves while House By The Sea crackles and trades tribal and electronica influences. Resurrection Fern harkens back to conventional country and Boy With a Coin lends itself to its clap-oriented percussion. The Devil Never Sleeps is genuinely thrilling with its heart full of soul; even if Beam seems almost out of place to the backing chorus and the dominant piano, his enjoyment gives a resounding resonance to the preceding.

And that's where The Shepherd's Dog really shines: by pushing pop into the dreary without all the drab, Iron and Wine strikes a balance of truth and hope that can get muddled by a scene dominated by pessimists (look no further than Lovesong of the Buzzard for a sweet, melancholic example). Even if Beam's lyrics are sometimes too wound up in interpretation to comprehend (dogs are consistently referenced within multiple songs, but what is their purpose?), he weaves an enthralling story, one that The Shepherd's Dog carries all the way home.