Self-conscious Beauty and Contemplation: The Shepherd’s Dog, by Iron and Wine, featuring Sam Beam

By Daniel Garrett

Iron and Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog
SubPop, 2007

“No one is the savior they would like to be,” is a line in one of the songs (“Lovesong of the Buzzard”) on Iron and Wine’s album The Shepherd’s Dog, and I imagine that thought is germane to daily life, to politics, to religion, and to art. Iron and Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog offers ambition and distraction, a self-conscious beauty and contemplation, some imagination and skill, but it does not—for me—offer the force of life or the seduction or even the surprise I want. My musical messiah is to be found elsewhere.

The texture of “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car,” with its guitar rhythm sounding vaguely eastern, and the soft-spoken voice of singer and writer Sam Beam, offering poetic words, could seem the answer to a wish: a wish for an intelligent, imaginative, and genuinely musical craft, evidence that can compel the listener to believe in art. But the song is proved to be part of a larger pattern—of suggestion rather than presentation of a fundamental source—and it is a recurring pattern, with little evolution. Beam’s high male voice—light, precise—can seem sensitive or precious in “White Tooth Man,” a song with a sharp guitar groove played with and against a constant rhythm. (It would be interesting to have that voice challenged by that groove, enlivened by it, responsive to it.) The descriptive words and possible wisdom in “Love Song of the Buzzard” does have an appeal, as does the domestic country scene in “Carousel,” with its clear instrumentation and harmonious voices (has Beam’s voice been double-tracked, for effect?). The see-sawing rhythm in “House by the Sea” evokes, just a little, the blues, and is followed by a splashy flow of notes that remind me of Malian music (Vieux Farka Toure and Dee Dee Bridgewater are more impressive in that regard). Sam Beam has said that he likes all kinds of music—African, South American, rock, and more; and he evokes rather than explores those genres of music in his own work. However, I cannot escape a sense of his music’s contrivance. Is that fair; after all, art is created, willed?

“Every tongue that gets bit always has another word to say,” is an aphorism in “Innocent Blues,” a song at least partly about appearance and reality. The long sung lines—the length of the lines, their sonic effect—are attractive in “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)” but by this time, disenchantment has set in: and Iron and Wine’s music reminds me of the artier songs—the self-conscious sound and shape, the will toward art—of Fleetwood Mac. And then, after the countryish “Resurrection Fern,” an imaginative piece, in which it’s hard to decide if the vocal sound is old-fashion (like a choir) or modern (a precision achieved with technology), there comes a song that brings to mind the Beach Boys: “Boy with a Coin,” despite its clapping rhythm and little accents of guitar noise. (However, Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones has been given as an inspiration for the album.) A short jazzy song, reminiscent of something from the 1950s, is “The Devil Never Sleeps.” There is nothing inevitably wrong with music that calls forth familiar associations, but it is best if the music does not pale in comparison to those associations, best if the new music is deepened by those associations. That does not quite happen for me enough in these songs.

With its somewhat ominous beginning, I had hoped that “Peace Beneath the City” might give a surprise—but it seems little more than atmosphere, intriguing atmosphere but merely atmosphere, although the lyrics seem to be intricate and about many deaths, with bodies buried beneath the city. (Sam Beam’s vision, as expressed in his lyrics, is a large vision made up of many small details. It is not a surprising vision for a writer who is also an admirer of film.) The recording The Shepherd’s Dog concludes with a song that sounds like a cross between a hymn and a waltz, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” I found this an interesting but frustrating album, with not enough variety in vocal expression, or mood.

Daniel Garrett’s extensive commentary on the film Brokeback Mountain was published abroad last year, in Film International. Daniel Garrett, Louisiana-born and a longtime New York resident, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, is a writer of essays and creative work, including fiction, drama, and poetry. His work has appeared in The African,, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen,, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option,, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. For The Compulsive Reader, Daniel Garrett has written on music, films, and books. Author contact: or