After expanding his intimate indie folk sound about as far as it could go on the last Iron & Wine album, Kiss Each Other Clean, Sam Beam (and trusty producer Brian Deck) take a step back on Ghost on Ghost and deliver something less suited for large arenas and more late-night jazz club-sized. The arrangements on that album were stuffed with instruments and seemed built to reach the back row; this time there are still plenty of horns, violins, and female backing vocals in the mix, but they are employed with a much lighter touch. Working with jazz drummer Brian Blade and a standup bass and mixing together elements of country, jazz, indie rock, and soft rock, the album has a much more intimate feel that suits Beam's quietly soulful vocals much more naturally.
Natalie Merchant is marketed as the successor to 2001's Motherland, suggesting it's Merchant's first album since, but that isn't strictly true. She independently released a collection of folk covers called The House Carpenter's Daughter in 2003 and, most notably, the ambitious double-disc neo-children's album Leave Your Sleep in 2010 – distinctive work both but she hasn't dedicated herself fully to original material in 13 years, so Natalie Merchant is indeed noteworthy. Feeling neither pent-up nor fussy, the eponymous album is handsome, deliberate, and familiar; she's not picking up where she left off, she's merely resuming her career, not acting like any time or fashion has passed in her absence.