In the ten years since the release of his debut, The Creek Drank The Cradle, Sam Beam has covered a remarkable amount of ground. Moving from hushed acoustic lullabies through to raucous full-band arrangements over four albums (not including a considerable amount of EPs and B-Sides) Mr. Beam can probably afford to relax a little, as he does on Ghost on Ghost. In a press release, he said that he wished to move away from the “anxious tension” that pervaded The Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean, and that "this record felt like a reward to myself after the way I went about making the last few". While the album is the product of well-earned leisure and benefits from the relaxed approach, I would argue that this is Beam’s most ambitious work to date.
The album opens with Caught in the Briars, a jubilant, full-band anthem which centres around an acoustic guitar line that is not dissimilar to Boy With a Coin. Although it kicks off the album on a suitably laid-back note, that doesn’t mean Beam doesn’t have a few aces up his sleeve. Along with his trademark ballads (Joy, Baby Center Stage) he is equally comfortable churning out a speeding road anthem on New Mexico’s No Breeze or pulling out a hip-hop influenced groove on Singers and the Endless Song (that may sound awful on paper, but trust me, it works). While a jazz influence has been present on his last few albums, here it is more pronounced and takes centre stage with playful bass-lines, compelling percussion and blaring brass. Throughout the album ethereal backing vocals are also never far away, like a choir of ghosts hovering just by Beam’s shoulder.
Grass Windows has a sombre, foot-shuffling beat while Beam’s wispy vocals have a gospel cadence to them. The meandering organ flourishes during the song’s middle and the stately brass sections make this seem like a funeral song performed by a lounge-jazz band. Meanwhile, Sundown (Back in the Briars) is a majestic composition, and the interplay between vocal, percussion and organ is a stroke of genius. For me it ends just too soon as sweeping strings kick in and create the atmosphere of a band on a steamboat, lazing down a river on a summer’s evening. This immediately segues into the chilly overtones of Winter Prayers, a stark, acoustic ballad that is evocative of trees stripped bare and cutting winds.
The most astounding track on the album is undoubtedly Lover’s Revolution. It starts off with just Beam’s vocals, followed by some bass and brass that slinks in and out. As more instruments come in the track progressively gathers speed, gaining urgency with each repetition of the refrain “I came to you, and you to me”. This eventually culminates at the middle 8 into a ramshackle jazz furore, with crashing drums, bluesy piano and screaming saxophone. The track then settles into a confident tempo before finally slowing down into the woozy and sluggish beat from which it started. All the while Beam is singing his ass off like a crazed seer. It’s a rollicking journey travelled in just under six minutes and you can tell that Beam is loving every single minute of it.
With each album Beam matures as a composer. His compositions have become more refined and complex, far outstripping his initial reputation as an acoustic-folk artist. The production on songs such as Low Light Buddy of Mine have a scrappy, lo-fi charm, but the layering of parts clearly show that Beam meticulously arranges each song to his particular vision. At their most accomplished, they have the richness of classical suites. I’ll admit that I occasionally miss the acoustic-based Beam, but it is gratifying to see that at a decade into his career his creative thirst and inspiration remain undiminished. He shows no sign of slowing down and still has the ability to surprise.
At the time of writing I have been unable to give the album as many plays as I would have liked, but I can definitely tell that, like Iron & Wine’s most recent albums, this album will only sound richer with repeated listens. At its best it reaches the creative heights of The Shepherd’s Dog (and possibly surpasses it, I really couldn’t say at this point). What I am sure of though, is that once you get your hands on this record you will have it on heavy rotation for a long time to come.
Ghost on Ghost is available from 4AD on 15th April.