Photo: Malin Johansson
Adrift in the milieu – José González emerges once again a teacher and student of his own craft on his third LP: Vestiges and Claws.
Almost ten years removed from Veneer – González’s debut LP – the Swede remains more or less unscathed. While a decade typically leaves its mark on a folk singer – usually a few more mediocre tattoos or perpetual whiskey-breath – González has emerged the same whispery apparition that he entered as. And for it Vestiges and Claws picks up from the last chord strummed on the 2007 release In Our Nature and wanders on.
Laced with the intimacy and intricacy of an ex-lover, the work almost breathes familiarity. As the nylon-stringed arpeggios dance and drape the bedroom environment on the opener, “With The Ink Of A Ghost”, a kind of confession is made. González seems to say; I’ve returned, I’m the same, take it or leave it. For a natural recluse, a non-verbal statement of the like is about the closest González will ever get to combative, yet this statement seems more about communication than confrontation. González seems to express his true desires, or better yet true self, in this message to the folk community through his decision to remain sonically consistent once again. Although remaining unchanged seems, at times, stemmed from a lack of artistic direction, it can be a very thoughtful and active choice all the same. González appears to have made attentive decision and, still regardless of its similarities – Vestiges and Claws remains a somewhat novelty to the folk community.
As the record ambles on, the essence of the work begins to take shape. Sheparded at times by González’s punctual vocal and then at others by assemblies of claps, snaps, and shakers, “Let It Carry You” serves as the lone up-tempo track visited by Vestiges and Claws. While many, undoubtedly, will recall the briskness that gave Veneer its charm with this track, “Let It Carry You” seems to solve a different riddle. It’s freshness and resolve allows the track to exist not only as nostalgia for González’s previous work in Veneer, but also as a composition in and of itself too – a piece that can stand on it’s own two feet. The ability to remain interesting while remaining homogenous; thus is the brilliance of José González. While many folk singers fall victim to the tides of criticism and critique – González seems to live outside it and remains attentive to his self and his craft.
It can be argued that the development of craft is not always synonymous with the achievement of stardom in pop music. However – in the folk community – craft most of the time precedes even stardom and José González is no exception. Having been born in Sweden to Argentine parents, González was introduced to Latin and Caribbean folk music in his early years while learning to speak (and sing) in English too. This exposure to the broader folk communities proved effective in González’s return to the classical guitar after several hardcore-punk trials in the early 2000s (Rajagopalan). When the singer returned, though, he returned with the dexterity of a proficient guitarist.
In many of the same ways Nick Drake became well known for his unity and ability with a guitar in the 1960s, José González attracted acclaim for his fingerpicking style and proficiency after the release of Veneer in 2003. After the subsequent release of In Our Nature in 2007, the evolution of González’s craft was – as somewhat expected – very gradual. Besides the introduction of multi-tracking guitars and vocal doubling, the sound of In Our Nature did not fall too far from the tree of Veneer. The result, however, was a more refined, more deliberate sound that brought the Swede’s craft closer to the resonance featured on Vestiges and Claws.
Intertwining soft-spoken phrases with long drawn-out vowels, the vocals rise and fall throughout Vestiges and Claws. Without an alarm or place to be it’s easy to disappear into the music and lose track of time. While most of the time Jose González’s consistent craft serves as his strong suit, there are moments through the interior of the album that it also flirts along the line of a downfall. “The Forest”, in particular, feels more like a watercolor painting than a consequential character study. Yet, the deliberateness of his work remains all the while and compels attentiveness rather than analysis. It becomes clear eventually that González’s outward charm has been discovered by the folk-singer himself, and that his work is a direct result of that discovery. González, it seems, understands the relationship between steadiness of character and consistency of craft in creating a legacy. And a legacy he’s made.