Up until he turned a corner with 2007’s “The Shepherd’s Dog,” Sam Beam had been painted mostly in monochrome. Under the name Iron & Wine, his brand of indie folk was so specific and tethered to the times — lo-fi, hushed, impressionistic — he soon became known as that bearded troubadour who lulled you into a state of grace.
It was a shock, then, when his third full-length album added splashes of color to his musical palette and suggested there was a vibrant heartbeat lurking beneath those pastoral acoustic melodies and Beam’s somnambulant voice.
“That was the album where I stopped doing music in my spare time as a hobby and really tried to expand what I was doing, incorporating other music I liked and textures I could hear,” Beam says. “With the older ones I didn’t really have the time or access or resources to do that. I definitely stretched out on that one, and it has informed everything I’ve done since then.”
IRON & WINE
Creative restlessness and a sense of adventure are at the heart of Iron & Wine’s latest album, which he’ll celebrate with a show at Berklee Performance Center on Friday. “Ghost on Ghost” might be Beam’s most startling record yet, a sunny, joyous ode to romance and the wide open road.
The opening “Caught in the Briars” sounds like it wafted in from a make-believe jam session with James Taylor and the Beach Boys in the mid-1970s. It’s funky and awash with slick female harmonies and an extended jazz coda. The song picks up right where the album’s predecessor, 2011’s “Kiss Each Other Clean,” left off.
“All my albums have been tipping-off points, little stepping stones along the way. I learn something with each record and take that into the next one,” Beam says. “The process of making this new one was the most fun I can remember in a long time.”
“Ghost on Ghost” is very much a group effort, with a vast roster of backing musicians and intricate arrangements for strings and horns. There’s even a crack at progressive jazz on “Lovers’ Revolution,” whose audacity was a left turn even for Beam.
“That song was the newest territory for me. I had dabbled with elements of the other songs before,” he says, adding that he felt comfortable with whatever direction the music took. “You don’t know what the top of the hill looks like until you try. Music is one of those things that if you play it safe, it can be incredibly boring.”
Beam gives credit where it’s due, particularly to Rob Burger, who wrote the arrangements on the record and contracted the musicians who play on it. Burger’s collaborations with Beam go back to “The Shepherd’s Dog,” and he has noticed a pattern with Beam.
“He’s always looking to stretch himself, and for each project he’s really open to trying something new,” Burger says. “He’s got the ability to see the bigger picture from beginning to end, and he’s a great conceptualist in the way he hears things and envisions the arrangements. He’s got a very distinct vision and yet there’s room to grow within it.”
“Ghost on Ghost” feels miles removed from Iron & Wine’s bone-dry debut, “The Creek Drank the Cradle,” which came out more than a decade ago. Even now Beam seems humbled to be a professional musician, especially since he didn’t have what he considers a “conquering agenda” when he first started. He was just some guy making music at home when Sub Pop Records offered to release his first album.
“Like anyone who records music or writes a song, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool if someday I were able to do this for a living?’,” he says. “But it was such a fluke, and it really all took me by surprise and I just held on for dear life. I really wasn’t prepared. I really went into it naively with no experience.”
As for fans who still wish he were the sensitive singer-songwriter who could turn the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” into a lullaby, which he famously did on the 2004 “Garden State” soundtrack, Beam says there’s a risk in that, too.
“It’s a gamble whatever you do, but I like to err on the side of trying something new and engaging yourself,” he says. “At the end of the day, if you decide to stay the same, that’s also a gamble. You can’t predict what people are going to like. You have to stay true to your enthusiasm and obsessions.”