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“Cast some light and you’ll be alright” repeats José González in “Crosses,” a standout track on his debut LP, Veneer — an album that came out in 2003 (internationally in 2005). The Sweden-born Argentinian singer-songwriter was perhaps one of the more unlikely candidates for global troubadour; he was raised in Gothenburg, Sweden, by two academics who fled Argentina in 1976 following a military coup, and was well on his way through a PhD in biochemistry when the guitar tempted its way into his hands. González’s playing style is its own quiet-yet-deeply-impactful beast: Inspired early on by bossa nova and Silvio Rodríguez, among others, González also spent many years playing in a hardcore band — the intensity of which still seeps into his current work.
The inherent softness of his music is often compounded by a depth that has a way of striking listeners at their core. In many ways, the work of José González is that of delicate contrasts: thunderous bass riffs and delicate treble, songs about the darkness in the world and also how we conjure light from it. His distinctive and arguably healing playing style and comforting voice has accompanied us for two decades, and he’s also maintained a consistency that’s difficult to find in artists these days — his records, for many of us, becoming a soft place to land. As we look back with the artist at his first two albums — Veneer and In Our Nature — we’re reminded of how he not only has opened the door for generations of singer-songwriters, but has also accompanied us in hanging onto hope despite, and maybe because of, the darkness that can render it impossible.
Veneer was released globally in 2005, and in Sweden in 2003, though some of the songs had been floating in the world since as early as 1998. “Hints” and “Deadweight on Velveteen” were the first two songs González wrote, and, like any great creator in the ’90s, he recorded them on his first computer using hacked software in his apartment while he was studying for university — if only procrastination always sounded so beautiful. Those two songs became a 7” that he distributed around town with his address and home phone number written on the back. This was the seed of Veneer — planted in a Stockholm record store that a Mute Records executive would eventually stumble upon — and from there, an album grew.
Veneer introduced the world to the José González Effect: where you’re soothed and devastated simultaneously. Both critics and listeners alike were struck by this. Pitchfork went so far as to call him as “An ethereal, sometimes-aloof troubadour, [who] will sing you to sleep and then dash off under cover of night, leaving only cold-sweat nightmares and an unopened bottle of sweet vermouth.” Spin described the debut as “an exquisitely brittle, bruised articulation of how bewildering and devastating it can be to wake up every day and watch your hope slip away before the coffee is even made.” You get the idea. José González quickly established himself as a soft-voiced conduit for realness and all of its difficult and glimmery parts.
Early on, people began to draw parallels between González and the legendary folk artist Nick Drake. Speaking with VMP, González revealed that he’d only learned of Drake when he’d started playing his first songs live: “When I started playing live, I only had a couple of these songs and people who heard me play were like, ‘Oh you’re very inspired by Nick Drake,’ and at that time I didn’t know about him. But after I listened to him, I wrote ‘All You Deliver’ and ‘Stay In The Shade’ — which is very similar, I don’t think I would have written that song without hearing Nick Drake,” he remarked. Drake has remained a massive influence in González’s songwriting — González even noted that he returned to the short, intimate structure of Drake’s Pink Moon in the crafting of his latest album Local Valley, released in 2021.
Veneer is an album that weaves in González’s early influences of bossa nova, Latin American folk classics, emo and hardcore in a way that becomes a sound all his own. Beginning with the subtle tropicália-tinged “Slow Moves,” the album hits a highly-relatable lull with “Lovestain” — a song that waxes on how difficult it is to forget someone who hurt you and how devastatingly painful love can be, while ensuring that healing is possible (“You left a lovestain on my heart / … But blood comes off easily,” the song repeats).
Of course, one could say the pinnacle of the album is his notorious cover of Swedish band The Knife’s “Heartbeats.” Becoming the early-2000’s version of viral via its feature in a Sony commercial, González’s version of the track completely recontextualizes the hard-hitting club anthem and infuses it with an otherwise unimaginable softness. This now-classic cover exemplifies González’s uncanny ability to find sweetness where others might not — an arc in many of his songs. His version of “Heartbeats” has become a classic itself; in our interview he mentioned that whenever he doesn’t play it during his live shows, he gets angry comments afterward.
“Crosses,” one of his earlier songs, is essentially a song you can rest your shoulder on: “Don’t you know that I’ll be around to guide you? / Through your weakest moments,” the song begins. It addresses internal struggle and cradles it, unfolding into a chorus that reassures us that we’ll be alright. The video for the track features González sitting in the back of a cab as various characters cycle through, allowing us to witness pieces of lives in various states of disarray — a crying party girl, a man with a broken wrist, a person with a bouquet of flowers — while he sits, as an anchor, holding all of it.
“All You Deliver,” “Deadweight on Velveteen” and “Stay In The Shade” invite a much more somber dynamic into the album, as his vocals become noticeably more severe and sparse. “Stay In The Shade” especially is about the sadness and disappointment around a love that’s lost its spark, and the vital decision to move forward: “Love moves on / life goes on,” he sings.
“Hints,” as mentioned, is one of the first songs written on the album, clearly influenced by his emo listening habits. It uses sparse vocals to emote what sounds much like a desperate plea: “We need a hint / to know we’re on the right track.” It’s a theme that is also a lyrical thread woven throughout all of González’s work: writing songs that are honest about difficult and dark aspects of being human, while always seeking its lighter counterpart.
The album ends with “Broken Arrows” — a song that stylistically plays with dissonance and simplicity — a climbing, finger-picked progression, that surrounds lyrics lamenting an ephemeral love. Ending in acceptance (“That’s the way things are sometimes / most of the time”), a muted trumpet closes the chapter on Veneer.
In Our Nature (2007)
Two years later, In Our Nature was released, an album with much darker undertones than the first, but, in true José González style, his sophomore record invites the light in as the album develops.
In Our Nature actually began with the last song on the album, “Cycling Trivialities,” which he originally had as a fully instrumental demo for the first album. In the studio version, the lyrics stop approximately halfway through, and so begins a switch to a major key, and a soft, almost relieving instrumental outro. At 8:09, it is by far his longest song and another one that has become a staple in his repertoire. “I was inspired by post rock, more symphonic and also live-oriented music where you’re not aiming for radio,” he said. “Cycling Trivialities” unfolds like a forest walk; inquisitive and whirling in its guitar patterns, it’s a song that takes you into the confusing darkness of being lost, but gently holds your hand through it, and eventually out of it. González said of the track, “It’s a song about internal frustration, but at the end of the song, it’s like, ‘I’m OK, I’m not struggling anymore.’”
In Our Nature looks outward, because at the time he wrote it, González said he was thinking about topics like religion and radicalization. A self-described secular humanist, he critiques the human tendency to turn on themselves, while also, again, infusing a hope into his writing that maybe, just maybe, the very things that turn people against each other can save them — can save us. An example of this ethos is the song “Killing For Love,” which was inspired by a quote by the anthropologist Helen Fisher: “Everywhere in the world people pine for love, live for love, kill for love, and die for love.” In a cutting critique of humanity’s tendency to misplace emotions and turn them into violence, he repeats, “What’s the point / if you hate, die and kill for love?” Musically, the song revolves around a march-like rhythm, echoing the militaristic beast that love can become.
In Our Nature begins with the song “How Low,” which González describes as the darkest on the album. “It’s accusative in its tone, similar to the hardcore lyrics I used to write,” he said. “It’s about trying to find a topic that makes you feel angry, so thinking about greed and people who are willing to do anything, like going to war. If Putin was doing his war then it would be a song about him.” The song is one of González’s more cutting, sung in a lower register and descending into a baritone at the end of every verse, it sets a serious tone for the rest of the album.
“Down The Line” brings us up again; as González explained: “[‘Down The Line’] is also dark but it’s also about the inner struggle, about not letting your inner darkness bring you down.” This song is what he calls a “Rocky mantra,” one that you put on to pump you up. It basks in simplicity — with repetition of at the end of the short line “don’t let the darkness eat you up.”
Among its 10 songs, In Our Nature also features a Massive Attack cover (“Teardrop”), which González once again turns into his own, extremely sweet-yet-intense version of the original, proving his mastery of the art of the cover. It didn’t have quite the effect that “Heartbeats” did, but it sits nicely in the middle of the album, leaning into the track “Abram” — inspired by Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The track, perhaps unsurprisingly, is González’s blatant critique of religion: “Not much of what you say makes any sense / Cook up some myths then ask for obedience,” he sings.
The songs on this album dive deep into internal frustrations, and humanity’s tendencies toward violence and greed. It is heavy though also honest in nature, and its title track makes its mission clear, as he sings, “Put down your gun / Ignore the alarm / Open up your heart / Let down your guard.” We are a mess as a species, yes, but we can be better, there can be peace, there is always room for the light to come back.
José González has released two albums since Veneer and In Our Nature (2015’s Vestiges and Claws and 2021’s Local Valley), and continues to play songs from all of them to audiences around the world. He carries them with him, much like many of his devoted listeners have carried his music with them through some of their most difficult, and perhaps most joyous, moments. For over 20 years now, González and his highly distinguishable dulcet voice have raised an eyebrow to the dark parts of the world, while also urging all of us to see — and believe — its inevitable magic.
Phoebe Smolin is a writer, DJ, artist manager and curator born, raised and currently based in Los Angeles. When she’s not dreaming up words, she’s what many call a professional band mom — spending every waking minute working to grow artists and help them navigate the often-prohibitive music industry, creating inclusive musical spaces and developing paradigm-shifting musical narratives and collaborations via her creative publicity/marketing/management/curation firm Locamotive.
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