Sam Beam, the bearded auteur behind Iron & Wine, has a freak folkie’s obsession with nature, a fondness for Biblical allusions as well as general old timeyness that suggests Smog or Palace, and a showman’s gift for combining the two. The Shepherd’s Dog is the finest, most portentously solemn record of his fine, portentously solemn career. It’s a riot of guitars, handclaps, eastern flourishes, waltzes, pianos, organs and effects (the best of which thicken and deepen Beam’s vocals; the worst make him sound like he’s singing underwater). In its mild, stubborn way, it’s the fizziest record Beam has made yet, which should tell you something about the other ones.
“Pagan Angel And A Borrowed Car” and “Boy With A Coin” are among a handful of great, almost-uptempo tracks. “Wolves (Song Of The Shepherd’s Dog)” revisits his In The Reins collaboration with Calexico, one of the few acts as interested in collapsing the borders of modern-day indie-folk as Beam himself.
More than ever, Beam places heavy emphasis on the malign intent of the natural world. Winds are cruel, flowers dead, trees angry. “Lovesong Of The Buzzard” (“Springtime and the promise of an open fist/A tattoo of a flower on a broken wrist”) demonstrates that Beam can turn a phrase more deftly than almost any of his direct compatriots, though he’s prone to a mystical vagueness that can’t help but grate.
“Carousel” is one of several tracks here to make veiled reference to the Iraq war, though if Beam has something to declare, it’s buried under increasingly impenetrable layers of metaphor. “Almost home/With an olive branch and a dove/You were beaten on a Persian rug” may contain everything he’s trying to say, or nothing, or both: Parsing, like resistance, is futile.