The Swedish finger-picking balladeer, famous for his covers of the Knife and Kylie Minogue, returns with incrementally increased sophistication and, yes, another breathtaking cover.
Jose Gonzalez, the Swedish singer-songwriter whose hypnotic, guitar-picked songs have cultivated a minimal aesthetic. This is manifested even in his albums’ art, in which he has placed an image of a cell smack bang in the centre of his new CD. Well, not exactly a cell; it’s part cell, part jellyfish, part tree trunk and part blood vessel. Can you picture it? The microscopic is a perfect conceptual mindset to bring to a Jose Gonzalez CD. When you talk about expansions in texture or songwriting they're likely to occur at the pace of scientific research. Basically, Gonzalez' approach to progressing musically resembles the PhD candidate that he used to be: each advance seems carefully thought-out, almost empirical. But they can at times also seem frustratingly glacial.
Since we're in the business of tracing developments, In Our Nature, Gonzalez' sophomore effort, applies this workmanlike attitude to sharper emotions than those he's habitually addressed. Did you ever think this gentle lyricist would declare "this means war"? Gonzalez was lyrically inspired, he's said, in part by Dawkins' The God Delusion, one of the slew of rampantly atheistic non-fiction books that have dominated the bestseller lists over the last year or so. In Our Nature's MOA is more subtle undercurrent than overt scientific creed, though an overarching rationality does spill out occasionally. "Killing For Love" shares Dawkins' outrage at the twisted evangelical love that slips so easily into violence: "What’s the point if you hate and kill for love? / You’ve got a heart full of passions / Will you let it burn for hate or compassion?"
From the beginning, Gonzalez has always been in danger of being one of those artists known more for his covers than his original material. Not that this has, or will, stop his legions of adoring fans. Either way, “Heartbeats” was the obvious highlight of Veneerjust as “Hand On Your Heart” was the same for the Stay in the Shade EP from last year. Gonzalez must have thought hard, you suspect, before making the decision to include a cover on this disc, too. Perhaps he should have kept it as the live staple it has become because yes, the cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” does rather stand out. Gonzalez has to be given credit for selecting songs to cover that suit both his minimal acoustic transcriptions and his particular brand of soft whimsy. It's just that these pieces are all, of themselves, so powerful that they somewhat overwhelm the artist's own, more meditative pieces. At least at first they do at first.
The thing about Gonzalez's best songs like "Crosses", off Veneer, is that they have this odd mood creating effect where, out of simple elements like a handpicked guitar and looped melody, this sustained, weightless ambience somehow appears. It's not something that needs a greatly sophisticated songwriting or arrangement. Because of this simplicity it's easy to dismiss these songs as 'sketches', even though skeletal minimalism is part of their charm.
Nevertheless, Gonzales shows some interest on this new disc in expanding his capabilities, songwriting-wise: multi-tracking vocals, (including some from Yukimi Nagano, his girlfriend and a singer in Gothenburg band Little Dragon), soft-pattering percussion and even a counter-melody here or there. On "Fold", a meditative plea for understanding through systematic thought, "walk[ing] down all the aisles", "turning over every stone", is sung over a rocking guitar lilt reminiscent of the Books' "Take Time". Gonzales even throws in a static coda that reinforces the emotion of the track's central plea: "Please don't let me down this time / I've come a long way just to fall back in line".
But a few things cause us to qualify our praise. In Our Nature like Veneer is short, clocking in at just over half an hour. That may be a direct consequence of the artist's simplicity. Over the course of an hour, the same soft, repetitive lines may well lull us to sleep, but it also gives his releases a measure of flimsiness. One song, "Time to Send Someone Away", illustrates that stripping back's not always an improvement. The original version, which was featured on Embee's solo debut Tellings from Solitaria, (he's better known as the DJ for Swedish hip hop group Looptroop), has an expansive, Atmosphere-style hip hop background with held-out strings and a broken, chilled beat. This actually suits Gonzalez's dreamy vocalswhile the hiccuping, minimal percussive sound that serves as accompaniment on In Our Nature feels emotionally thin in comparison.
Maybe it's just in Jose Gonzalez's nature to be adored. True, his unassuming, intensely personal style creates a magnetic persona. Live, he huddles over his guitar, rocking back and forward, intense in his creation of this soft-woven wonder. It's easier to pick apart his sound when you hear it recorded, easier – if you're not in the right mood – to dismiss it for its simplicity and repetition. But for someone like Gonzalez, that's not really the point. If he keeps recording half-hour sets of these slow-evolving scientific experiments of songs, surely plenty of people will continue to love him - just as they do for Nick Drake, even today.