Sam Beam’s slow transformation into The Decemberists’ lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy continues on “Tree by the River,” the first single from his new album Kiss Each Other Clean. It’s the sort of love song you’d expect from that Portland, Oregon-based folk-rock outfit, with none of the huskiness or muted acoustic tones that dominated Iron & Wine’s style for years.
This trend started as early as 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, but it looked like Beam was back to melodic whispering again on The Shepherd’s Dog and its leadoff track “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car.” That’s not to say “Tree by the River” isn’t melodic, but things seem a great deal louder (which might be an effect of the prominent electric guitar solo).
Beam sounds—typically—like he could lull you to sleep at midday in Manhattan, only it sounds like he’s using a larger space with his voice; the close proximity we feel with the lyrics in Iron & Wine’s most popular singles is gone.
For all that, it’s still a nice quasi-electric folk tune. The cadence of Beam’s poetry calls to mind down-home barn dancing with a modern twist, the rhyming tercets (three-line verses) bringing a sort of classical style to the American folk revival school. His reflective images of free childhood are a perfect match for the simple musical arrangement, and when the lightly distorted guitar kicks in for a solo, everything seems to click.
It may not feel like Iron & Wine sometimes, but “Tree by the River” may be a sign of great changes in Iron & Wine’s sound. And despite some hiccups, that sounds like a good thing.