The first time I witnessed José González perform live, he was sat alone on an open-air stage with a fierce wind lashing around him. For his 45-minute set he did not speak between songs and more surprisingly the Swedish songwriter seemed to be oblivious to the gale force conditions raging around him. This is because when José plays he inhabits a purely personal space, where each musical motif becomes a unique, mediative moment to be shared between himself and his audience. Likewise too when you put on one of his records, his music is always an intimate experience and all background noise just slides away. He was and has always been the calm at the centre of the storm.
Over seven years since his second solo record ‘In Our Nature’, José returns with his third solo effort ‘Vestiges & Claws’. Unlike the two-year stretch between his first two records, it may appear ‘Vestiges’ has been a long time in the making. However it would seem this transformative period gave González a chance to finally catch his breath and explore other artistic endeavours. Able to flex his creative muscles, he released two albums with his pysch-folk/Krautrock influenced band Junip and engaged in a number of collaborative projects.
With Junip and under his solo guise he composed music for Ben Stiller’s ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’. The impassioned piano ballad ‘Stay Alive’ features a resounding Mumford-esque kick drum, with lyrics self-penned by Ryan Adams himself, whereas ‘Step Out’ aims at the stirring sing-a-long euphoria of early Arcade Fire epics. It certainly seems a stark contrast to the hushed tones, simple percussion and the subtle, graceful playing we hear on ‘Vestiges’.
Yet one crucial element is carried over: his philosophy. As his melodies ascend skyward, a deep-seated sense of hope seems to hang on every word. On past tracks such as ‘Hints’, ‘Crosses’ and ‘Down The Line’ his pain was clear-cut and as a listener, one followed as José searched for redemption and certainty in an unsettling and perplexing world. However, elsewhere on those albums were perfect portrayals of José’s deeply felt faith in life. As one can hear on ‘Heartbeats’ as it touches upon the unexplainable, elusive beauty that surrounds us all.
‘Vestiges’ two singles, the prophetic ‘Every Age’ and the upbeat ‘Leaf Off/ The Cave’ are immediate album highlights. On the latter José sings “Take the leaf of your mouth”, a common Germanic idiom meaning ‘to speak one’s mind’, which culminates with the high-spirited contagious chorus “Make the light lead you out”.
On ‘The Forest’ the meandering melody and the gentle cello strokes (which have the same fluid feel as those on Vashti Bunyan’s ‘Heartleap’) meld together flawlessly so that when José sings “Landscapes blurred by rain, mountains covered in snow” you can picture those vivid landscapes as if you were held above them, as if one had transcended into astral flight.
Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ is often cited when critics discuss José’s musicality and throughout ‘Vestiges’ you can certainly hear hints. However it is José’s lyrics across the record that resemble the same sort of ‘Eco-Zen’ likeness one might associate with Drake. For example by using the rustic, almost Taoist imagery:
“Idle as a wave moving out at sea, cruising without sound, molding what’s to be” – ‘With The Ink Of A Ghost’
“See the migrant birds pass by
Taking off to warmer skies
Hear them singing out their song
Tune in, realize nothing’s wrong”
“And dissolve into the foam
Of things near, of things gone
To remind our restless souls
Of the beauty of being here at all”
– ‘Let It Carry You’
José is able to harness the symbolism of nature to relate his opinions on politics, philosophy and humanity to his audience in an intelligible and universally understood manner. The ruminative, Simon & Garfunkel-sounding ‘Open Book’, as its title somewhat suggests, feels the most openhearted song on the record. Whereas other songs seem open to interpretation, this track whilst relatable seems more personal to José, which is a charming finishing touch to the album.
When an unreserved José sings “Let it carry you, let it carry you away” it sounds like the Swedish musician truly accepting and embracing the unpredictability of existence and focusing on the here and now. This passion and presence flows throughout ‘Vestiges & Claws’ and although at times it may lack the edge and rawness of his first recordings, it still remains relevant, due to José’s unique musings and its serene, harmonious consistency as an album.
Review by: David Weir
Out Now via Peacefrog Records
Order here via Amazon.