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Review: Jose Gonzalez Leaves the Bedroom Behind on ‘Vestiges & Claws’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 17, 2015
Label: mute

It’s been seven years since brooding fingerpicker José González released a solo album — we last heard from him on 2007’s transfixing In Our Nature — but the whispery singer-songwriter has finally returned after recording and touring for several years with his folk-krautrock trio Junip. Seven years is a long time in the industry — a fickle, trend-obsessed world where most revered indie-pop/rock up-and-comers feel pressured to pump out a new record every 24 months, lest they slip free from listeners’ memories. But the wild-haired troubadour, Swedish but born to Argentinian parents, has seemed content to reveal new solo material on a siesta-scheduled, below-the-equator timeline.

This isn’t to suggest that González has been lazy; quite the opposite. The space-heater-voiced singer self-produced Vestiges & Claws just as he did with the aforementioned Nature and his 2005 debut, Veneer. Unlike on his first two albums, González twists the volume knob up just enough here to sonically divert Vestiges & Claws from its predecessors (or bedroom pop pioneers Nick Drake and Elliott Smith). Longtime admirers aching to hear another batch of yearning arrangements might find themselves disappointed. But González is 36 now — he may have simply aged out of that self-pitying place.

Age has certainly emboldened González as a producer. Branching out from his minimalist roots, he experiments more: “Let It Carry You,” with its swelling, layered vocals, delicate guitar overdubs, and staccato, snapping rhythms, is the closest thing to a dance song that González has ever arranged solo. He opens his instrumental toolbox on songs like “What Will” to build a gentle (yet firm) foundation of rich bossa nova flair, and exploratory — even jam-friendly — classical guitar-work. And even on its low-key scale, rhythm is foregrounded here: many of the songs on Claws are bound together by naturalistic, ’round-the-campfire handclaps.

Lyrically, González thinks even bigger, asking the heavy questions: What does life signify, when humanity as we know it is essentially a speck in a never-ending universe? And isn’t it fascinating how we assign life so much meaning considering its relative brevity? Moving to answer these existential plights, González offers a lyrical throwback to the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” noting that “every age has its turn” in the meditative “Every Age.”

González, of course, is familiar with thematic density and weight — down to its title, Nature was strongly focused around the human condition, and Veneer (which featured a famous cover of the Knife’s mid-aughts love anthem “Heartbeats”) sounded torn from an emotionally wrought poet’s notebook. Lost in thought as he is, González doesn’t let himself (or the listener) become bogged down by in Life’s Big Concerns. In “Let It Carry You,” he points out the “beauty of being here at all.” It’s a comforting thought, even if you’re not fortunate enough to take as much vacation time thinking about it as he does.

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