José González‘s Local Valley is only the nylon-stringed guitarist’s sixth album in 16 years and his first new release since 2015. Like his previous albums, this one was recorded at his home studio north of Gothenburg, Sweden, and features little more than voice and guitar. Obviously, he spends a long time crafting his records. He plays meticulously. González belongs to the strike one note instead of three school where what he leaves out is as important as what he bequeaths. Even when he’s strumming chords, he holds the spaces between strokes to create drama and nuance. There always seems to be something going on beneath the music.
The first-generation Swede born to Argentinian parents sings in three different languages here (Spanish, Swedish, and English), but the meaning of the words matter less than their sounds. One doesn’t have to know what the word “Swing” means to understand the soft swaying of the song with that title. Some tracks, such as “Head On”, have a harder beat but still have a peaceful heart. The guitar lines repeat themselves in serial fashion but leave a hole in the middle for the listener to cling to in anticipation of what follows. It’s like a world fusion take on the 12-bar blues where one knows what will follow, but the art is found in the particular expression.
González also uses the sounds of nature on songs like “Visions”, where quiet bird songs augment his singing and playing. The lyrics suggest he aspires to be part of the natural reality rather than live apart from it. That seems redundant. The cut would work better as an instrumental and just show rather than tell. The Spanish “El Invento” is more successful because it uses the outside noises to question rather than declare a higher purpose. The song ends with the sound of a baby bird squawking at just being alive. That’s a good metaphor for the album itself. It’s the music of a man announcing his existence and wondering at his purpose. He sees himself reflected in the world around him and vice versa.
Indeed, the overall mood here is of reflection.” What would you do if it all came back to you,” he asks to begin “Line of Fire”. The answer is just as ambiguous. The lyrics suggest the choice is personal. But González’s guitar playing implies that one is the victim of forces beyond the self. One can’t change the world, only the way one deals with it. González’s cover of Iranian-Swedish singer-songwriter Laleh’s “En Stund På Jorden” is perhaps the most tranquil and beautiful song on the record. It functions as a formal work that enjoys an orthodox framing, like a still life in a gilded frame. González is currently on tour with Rufus Wainwright, another musician known for classical inspirations on his work.
As much as González enjoys tranquility, during a recent interview, he mentioned that he was looking forward to going out and seeing loud music for solace after being stuck indoors because of the pandemic. As a teenager González played in punk/hard rock bands as a way of rebelling against Sweden’s manufactured pop stylings. But González no longer aspires to perform strident music for crowds. The songs on Local Valley show he is happy to show the way quietly.