The idea of foreign interlopers saving (or subverting) another culture isn’t anything new. Without Arabic translations of works by Plato and Aristotle, the world would have lost some of the most important philosophy ever written. Islamic philosophers like Ibn Rushd and Avicenna were, in a way, rock stars in their time, keeping Socratic ideas alive for the centuries to come.
And now, the Vikings are mounting a second invasion, but instead of keeping practitioners of art from keepin’ on, they have become like the Middle Eastern philosophers of yore. al-Ghazali, meet Jose Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, an Argentinean-Swedish singer-songwriter, is one of a number of Scandinavian performers yanking folk rock back from the menacing grip of Top-40 musicians like John Mayer and Jack Johnson. Those better-known guys aren’t writing bad songs per se, but they do practice a kind of methodical, rote songwriting aimed directly at the center. Gavin DeGraw’s “Chariot” is a good example: the song has a sharp piano introduction, but lyrics like “I said to myself, we all lost touch /.../ Nothing from the ground is good enough / Body rise, look what’s over me” are disconnected and insensible.
The John Mayers and Gavin DeGraws have a formula that works, sure—one that male singer-songwriters try to emulate. But Swedish artists like Jose Gonzalez and Nicolai Dunger are aiming to do something a little more pure. Dunger just released Here’s My Song, a collaboration with Mercury Rev. Like Ed Harcourt, Dunger levels a cabaret-focused eye on music, creating lush pop songs that are whimsical and full of sincerity.
Gonzalez takes his music down a couple notches as well. 2005’s Veneer showcased Gonzalez alone on his guitar—no embellishments necessary. And at New York’s Joe’s Pub, he put on a show that exemplified that style.
The most distinct element of Gonzalez’s performance is his vocal approach. He clips the end of his lines, enunciating the last syllables of his lyrics as if he’s rushing to finish. It’s a kind of hiccup that snaps listeners to attention instead of lulling them away—it also makes for captivating listening. This rush is indicative of the rest of his show as well. Gonzalez’s set lasted exactly an hour, without any pauses, except to point a finger to his microphone every so often as a signal to the sound guy. No shout-outs to the ladies, no commenting on New York cab drivers, Gonzalez just performed his songs one after another. Some might think this cold, but I found the simplicity refreshing.
Sitting on stage alone, the tall and gangly Gonzalez looked like he was performing on the edge of his bed, rehearsing alone. During “All You Deliver” and “Hints”, he plucked his strings in pure Lindsey Buckingham-fashion. While performing “Slow Moves”, it seemed his guitar might overwhelm the vocals, but Gonzalez leaned into his lyrics just enough to rise above the accompaniment. Tilting his head back while hitting the chorus to “Hints” was one the few times he showed true emotion, scrunching his face up to bleat out “We need hints before we get tired / We need speed before we lose pace.”
Gonzalez struck the perfect balance between emotion and serenity, and when he let himself become really immersed in a song, it made the performance that much more powerful. During a late-set cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, Gonzalez sat straight up and leaned over his guitar, striking his chords sharply. This woke the crowd up even more, and he sang out the chorus, not with Ian Curtis’s resigned, low tone, but with an almost panicked energy that gave one the feeling of falling. After quieter lullabies like “Heartbeats” and “Deadweight on Velveteen”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was like a jolt of hot espresso for the audience, and they drank it up appreciatively.
Jose Gonzalez’s music is uncomplicated and clean, so much so that when he goes beyond his natural plaintiveness his energy seems magnified. Most music produced by mainstream singer-songwriters these days lacks that spontaneous edge. If only Jose Gonzalez became the pop standard; he could save the male singer-songwriter’s from themselves—not to mention the radio. If only…