Review: José González, 'Vestiges & Claws'
He asks a lot of questions, this José González.
He opened his last album, 2013's band project Junip, with a thought experiment Nietzsche could love: "What would you do if it all came back to you?" The song, "Line Of Fire," dwells in a mood of idle 3 a.m. musing; González tosses out existential/metaphysical conundrums like he's feeding bread to ducks — casually, without worrying much about concrete answers.
It's the act of musing — chasing ideas that fall anywhere on the spectrum between the provocative and the ridiculous — that matters to González. In the crystalline miniatures of Vestiges & Claws, he wrestles with the big unknowables in a way that makes them seem of vital importance, even if the seeking usually doesn't end anywhere conclusive. Follow his open-ended metaphysical quest, and your rewards are not obvious aphorisms, but little lotus-blossom moments of bracing clarity, or unexpected majesty, that quickly evaporate before their meaning can sink in.
González's new songs extend the contemplative air of "Line Of Fire," and of really everything the Swedish-born singer-songwriter has recorded since his 2005 debut. But the new works are tighter, more focused; each line seems meditated over, distilled for maximum potency. They're slight little creations, with minimal words encapsulating big ideas and breezy pop melodies disguising weighty notions about life's endlessly refracting illusions.
González has honed, developed and refined a method of questioning (himself and those around him) that is unsparing and direct, but it somehow also sounds serene, even soothing, aimed at the common good. He sounds annoyed when he looks in the mirror, challenging his state of inaction with a taunt: "Hey staller, what's the deal?" But the phrase arrives on a cloud of honey; there's no judgment, no boot-camp exhortation. Likewise, in "The Forest," he uses a timeless zen image to marvel at the extent of his cluelessness: "Why didn't I see ... the forest on fire behind the trees?" Again, the mood is warm; he's confiding something, not castigating himself for shortcomings. And he's equally gentle when confessing his emotional state to a vanished lover:
Lately I've found myself in doubt
Asking myself what it's all about
What am I doing here, what's this leading to
What's the point of all without you
This lofty, five-levels-up brand of inquiry can backfire in singer-songwriter music: We often expect them to sum up the heavy emotional stuff in tuneful pellets of digestible insight. We lose the thread if there's too much philosophy — or too much process. González is all about the process; his best songs circle ideas from a distance, avoiding outright declaration. Vestiges works primarily because he's created an inviting context for his questioning: Using mostly guitar and simple percussion, he cultivates an atmosphere of deep and unapologetic reflection. From the first chord, it's clear he's turned inward; the music is born out of quiet, and like some of his clear inspirations (Nick Drake circa Pink Moon, John Martyn around Solid Air), he resonates best when the listener is able to enter that mood, slow down and get quiet.
In the present moment, this amounts to a kind of radical zag: Every day brings new concerns about the endless assault of external stimuli, the frantic pace of modern life. Music often mirrors this condition, but not this record, which feels like it's an ocean away from the grid. González can sound like he's auditioning for a Simon & Garfunkel tribute act, but within his comfortingly consonant harmonies are invitations to a slower, more centered mode of being — a zone of introspection governed by calm, by the notion of seeking for its own sake, and by the intention that drives the seeking. In his coy way, González is stripping things down to their essence in hopes of reaching souls numbed by a rush of information. There's no contrivance in this, but there is, running in the background, a moving earnestness — and a sense of almost spiritual wonder at what he's encountered out there beyond the screens. González captures this aspect of his enterprise inside the lovely code-like koans of "Let It Carry You":
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
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