Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Good American

Iron & Wine (Psychedelic Folk)
LP: The Shepherd's Dog (
Sub Pop, 2007)

Right now it's difficult to admire an America embroiled in a divisive foreign conflict which has created untold death and misery for thousands of innocent people. As someone who loves that fair country and lived there for a good many years, that saddens me deeply.

Yet Iron and Wine's superb new album The Shepherd's Dog quietly hints there may yet be redemption if only America can realign its moral compass. I've had this record on permanent rotation for days, and it’s hardly left my mind as its hypnotic mysteries unfold.

Homespun yet edgy, The Shepherd’s Dog is firmly rooted in an American folk tradition, with liberal applications of pedal steel guitars, acoustic slide and tack piano. However the use of vocoder, dub reggae, African rhythms and psychedelic effects create a contemporary, experimental feel.

The consistently immaculate songwriting and vocal/instrumental performances are matched by Brian Deck’s superb production. Featuring delicate abstract soundscapes and lush, multi-layered textures, great attention is paid to details which reveal themselves only after repeated listening.

Listening to Sam Beam’s breathy vocals one can’t help being reminded of Nick Drake and Elliot Smith, though Beam’s poetry is far less fatalistic and gloomy than those two beautiful losers'. The stunning arrangement of House by the Sea sounds as if Drake has shacked up with a psychedelic Appalachian Afro-pop combo, and the results are gorgeous: “And like the shape of a wave/The jealous sisters will sing on my grave."

Many of the songs invoke a joyous celebration of nature - seen here as a metaphor for all that's good and true in the American psyche - but Beam's lyricism also condemns riot squads, strip malls and the fascist abuse of authority.

What strikes me most is Beam’s quiet call for America to find itself at a time of inner and outer conflict : “I've been dreaming our love and our freedom." The Shepherd’s Dog is haunted by the spectre of Iraq, and there are constant references to violence, ghosts, and birds of freedom.

’s political leader is presented as a “cartoon king”, “righteous, drunk, and fumbling for the royal keys,” as his cronies send soldiers off to die while they claim the glory: “There ain’t a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab, but they all want the scar."

In Carousel Beam sings the pain of those who are almost home, of olive branches and doves, grieving girls with crosses around their necks yearning for a life without despair: "Give me a yellow brick road/And a Japanese car/And benevolent change."

The astonishing poetry of Resurrection Fern almost breaks your heart with its depiction of a town riven by decay and moral disarray, where the protagonist cries over “Our bravery wasted and our shame.” “I love this town,” he sings, “but it ain’t the same.”

If history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, The Shepherd’s Dog urges the USA to rouse itself from its moral slumber. These luscious hymns suggest it might best accomplish this by emphasizing its finest traditions, acknowledging its failures and reconnecting with its poetic authenticity. If that were to happen, there could yet be a new morning in America.

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