The process of a singer-songwriter can be comparable to that of a novelist. Certainly, the lyrics of Fiona Apple, Mark Kozelek, and Tom Waits can stand as their own pieces of prose without the help of melodies. José González has decided to play with this as a concept on Vestiges and Claws. It comes, most obviously, with the song titles: “With the Ink of a Ghost”, “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell”, and “Open Book”. Much of the record takes a microscope to the writing process, revealing glimpses into González’s mind.
González might best be known for his stripped down covers of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” and the Knife’s “Heart Beats”. As beautiful as those songs are, however, they lack the faint aromas of psychedelia found in his solo projects and his work with Swedish folk-rock group Junip. Vestiges and Claws is simple on the surface, mostly composed of González’s voice and guitar with occasional percussion drifting in, but González makes these miniatures immaculate. They’ve been crafted over time and with care. Unlike many a folkie with a guitar in his hand, González makes the rhythm of these pieces precise. In fact, the only two sluggish moments are the songs that lack a proper pulse. The waning on sappy “Every Age” lumbers when other songs soar, and the instrumental “Vissel” feels like unwarranted fluff in an album that’s usually as tight as a drum.
Meanwhile the loping pace of “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell”, is neatly accented by handclaps and a spidery guitar lead. “Afterglow” works on similar but heavier logic, with foot stomps and low toms reverberating under González’s quiet musings on earth after the extinctions of the human race. “Let It Carry You” works at a lighter pace with González’s voice stuttering along as webs of guitars are strung over the sound. The hypnotizing “What Will” changes speed at the half-way point, turning a slow trickle into a tumbling stream. Then there’s González’s voice: egg-shell fragile, but with an inherent warmth within. His vocals are never strong on their own, but they encourage and build within the listener in the context of these songs.
All of this would be for naught if González wasn’t saying anything, but fortunately he excels in his story telling. Opening track “With the Ink of a Ghost” deftly paints the scene that the rest of these songs stroll across. “I don’t last a week moving out at sea / Cruising without sound/molding words to be”, he coos, treading the line between somber isolation and tranquil solitude. The melancholy lurch of “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell” is paired with González admitting, “Caught myself angerin’ over you / Sitting in silence trying to figure out what to do.” It’s hard to tell if he’s singing “caught” or “cut” as he traces old memories, now painful in fresh light.
Finale “Open Book” binds Vestiges and Claws with humble grace. The track is reminiscent of Fleet Foxes’ “Blue Spotted Tail” as both are small songs that whirl around in wonder of the world. González hitchhikes through his dreams and meditations on life, describing himself as “a drifting vessel in the storm / Pushed around from shore to shore / I know there’s so much left to see / I know I’ve so much left to give.” He closes with the image of “filling pages one by one in the warmth of other suns”. It feels like the credit theme of one of those rare children’s movies that also stirs humanity in adults. As the final notes of “Open Book” ramble away, it’s easy to imagine González traveling on his merry way, a guitar in one hand and a pen in the other.