The songs on Iron & Wine’s first album came cloaked in a hushed, intimate sound that made it almost a surprise to learn that they were recorded by a Florida film professor and not some heartbroken teenager singing to the night sky in the backwoods of Appalachia. Five years later, Sam Beam, the man behind the moniker, has an established place in the music landscape as one of those sensitive indie singer-songwriters and a third album, The Shepherd’s Dog, out on Sub Pop.
Rather than let the back-porch lo-fi sound of The Creek Drank the Cradle turn into tired shtick, Beam has expanded Iron & Wine’s musical palette with each release. The Shepherd’s Dog follows that course, dressing up the songs in busier arrangements and more musical styles than ever before. The delicate melodies and whispery vocals remain a constant, but here they are also laden with the production wizardry of Brian Deck, who makes his presence felt from the opening of the record.
The tinkling pianos, layered background vocals and electronic squiggles of ‘Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car’ start the album on a bold note. ‘The Devil Never Sleeps’ takes a stab at (not exactly raucous) roadhouse R&B, and the buoyant single ‘Boy With a Coin’ gets carried along by handclaps and steel guitar. Less successful is ‘White Tooth Man,’ which has a stinging electric guitar part, but never manages to actually rock — accomplished as the production is, at times it can feel more like pretty adornment than a necessary component of the music.
Ultimately, Beam has a lot more in common with the preciousness of Sufjan Stevens than with modern-day desperadoes like Will Oldham and Jason Molina, so he’s most comfortable with settings that don’t challenge him too much; the warm church-organ of ‘Lovesong of the Buzzard’ is a much better fit than the faux-dub textures of ‘Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog).’ Overall, the hits outnumber the misses, but it’s hard to believe that Beam can continue on this more-is-more trajectory without running into diminishing returns. If he keeps writing songs as good as the showstopping closer, ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’, however, he won’t need to shoehorn new instruments into every track.