Since releasing “In Our Nature” in 2007, José González has been steadily collecting ideas for new songs.
An album consisting of years’ worth of musical sketches might naturally sprawl wildly in production and style, but on “Vestiges & Claws”, González has created a collection of songs that cohere just about perfectly. It travels from the glowering, riff-driven ‘Stories We Build, Stories We Tell’ via the groovy ‘Leaf Off /The Cave’ to the anthemic ‘Every Age.’ For those familiar with José’s earlier work there is little doubt as to who is behind these recordings.
“I started out thinking that I wanted to continue in the same minimalistic style as on my two previous records,” says José. “But once I started the actual recordings I soon realized that most of the songs turned out better with added guitars and a more beat-like percussion, and with more backing vocals. Personally, I think this made it a more interesting and varied album.”
The result is less purist, less strict. One can find traces of inspired protest songs and eccentric folk rock here: monotonous grooves and rhythms, frustration and optimism. It’s a collection that is simultaneously confident, free and tentative.
Like José González’s previous releases, “Vestiges & Claws” was largely recorded in his home and partly in Svenska Grammofonstudion, both in Gothenburg. Chirping birds, creaking doors and off-mic chattering appear on the recordings; however, José is careful to avoid editing out these imperfections – he wants you to feel the intimacy of the setting.
“It was no doubt a conscious decision to work without a producer. I don’t want this to be too polished, or too ‘in your face.’ Most of all, it’s fun to be in complete control of the artistic aspect. Also, I have been inspired by and picked up a lot of tricks from the producers I have worked with in the past. I like to use distortion and let things be a little overdriven, which gives things a warmer sound. Sometimes people complain that my music is too muddled, but I really do not want a modern crisp sound. I’d much rather aim somewhere between Shuggie Otis and Simon & Garfunkel.”
He then adds: “Sonically I think it is the sound of softness and comfort that people mostly connect with my music. It happens quite often that people come up to me to tell me that they’ve used my music to calm their kids.”
José has been far from idle in the seven years since the release of “In Our Nature.” Besides making two Junip albums and touring the world both solo and with the band, González has been active in the studio in various contexts.
One project in 2013 was José’s input to the The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty soundtrack, directed by and starring Ben Stiller. Besides previously released José and Junip songs, the film also contains exclusively written material as well as an interpretation of John Lennon’s ’#9 Dream’.
Earlier this autumn, the AIDS awareness group, Red Hot Organization, released the compilation “Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell,” where José and guests play a very groovy, sax-laden version of Russell’s ‘This Is How We Walk On The Moon’. Another of González’s cover versions, his classic interpretation of The Knife’s ‘Heartbeats’, has tallied an impressive nearly 50 million streams on Spotify.
“Vestiges & Claws” is, however, the first album where José has chosen to include exclusively original material, largely revolving around ideas of civilization, humanism and solidarity.
“I think that might be where there is some sort of common thread on this new record: The zoomed out eye on humanity on a small pale blue dot in a cold, sparse and unfriendly space. The amazing fact that we are here at all, an aim to encourage us to understand ourselves and to make the best of the one life we know we have—after birth and before death. And also, I’ve been okay with using rhymes this time,” González said with a smile. He added, “In general I think that the lyrics are clearer this time. And a little less self-pitying.”
“Every age has its turn, every branch of the tree has to learn learn to grow, find its way, make the best of this shortlived stay take this seed, take this spade, take this dream of a better day, take your time, build a home, build a place where we all can belong”
But there is another side to José González’s songwriting on this album. The more than six minutes long ‘What Will’ sounds feverish, tight and angry. ‘Stories We Build, Stories We Tell’ focuses on a riff and the repeated line, “Ooh they’ll get to you, hope they’ll get to you,” sounding almost threatening.
“Anger is something I have dealt with on all my records, I have noticed that several of my songs have a pissed off, accusatory tone to them. It can be found in several of my older songs too.”
Where José’s previous albums, “Veneer” and “In Our Nature”, might have sounded sparse and barren in parts, “Vestiges & Claws” has an altogether new feeling to it, at once warmer and darker than before. He talks about how he’s found inspiration in sprawling 70’s Brazilian productions, American folk rock and West African desert blues this time. And how he’s decided to waive the principle of having everything on the album reproducible in a live context.
José sums it up, “I’ve focused more on the role of being a producer this time around, I’ve spent more time thinking of what’s best for the song and the recording.”