The most important thing I have to say about this album is that it rewards careful, active listening. Even after a week of listening to this album I'm not exactly sure what it's all about, but the curiousity keeps bringing me back to it. To me, that's a great characteristic for an album: It's not easily deciphered, but it's interesting enough that I want to figure it out.
My process for this reviewing experiment has been to listen to an album several times over the course of a week. (Maybe one of these days, I'll get some broader pre-release access to big acts, but for now we'll have to settle for bringing you things on release or on NPR Music (where a surprising number of really cool artists are previewing releases now, by the way)) Anyway, this was a tough week because I thought I was going to be reviewing "Kaputt" by Destroyer. While I liked it, it wasn't inspiring me. So I decided to go with this album based on a recommendation by my solar energy business parter Eric. Bottom line, it was a great call. I love this whole album and recommend it for anyone who likes the whole Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz thing - or anyone like them.
I'll start with "Tree By the River", since that seems to be the single on which everyone is focusing. I didn't even realize how much I liked it until I found myself humming one morning as I was waking up. The word that keeps coming to mind when I listen to this is wistful. It transports me to a time, a place and a feeling. The lyrics to this song speak to the growing-up me:
Several other songs on this album strike me as being particularly worthy of your time to listen to and enjoy.
"Monkeys Uptown" is a great example of my point earlier that this album requires active listening. In particular, the first time I listended to it as I was doing some other work, I though it was a mess: too many things happending and unnecessary sound effects. But once the tune became familiar, I started to appreciate the complex instrumentation and different layers of the song. I really don't know whether I'll choose this song in two, five or twenty years to play by itself, but it totally works for me now.
The second song on this album, "Me and Lazarus," kept me thinking all week. I wanted to find a connection to the song "Po' Lazarus" that was recorded by Alan Lomax and included on the great soundtrack to "O Brother Where Art Thou," but I just couldn't find it. I hear musical and sound effect references to it in this song, but thematically I'm not seeing it. Maybe someone can help me out with that.
In the end, I have more questions about what this ablum means than I have answers after listening it. That makes me like it. I find myself actively puzziling over it even after 10 or 12 listens. Maybe there is no big metaphysical meaning here and Sam Beam has snowed me into thinking there is with complex, beautiful instrumentation and opaque lyrics. But I don't think that's right. I know that I'm intellectually intrigued by these songs and I expect I will be for some time to come. And that's enough for me to recommend this to my friends...
By the way, here's a link to Iron & Wine's website.