Nowadays, there are few indie folk artists as distinctive as José Gonzalez, writes Caradoc Gayer. Other Nick-Drake-esque troubadours from the mid-2000s, such as Bon Iver or Sufjan Stevens, have moved in experimental or electronic directions. Gonzalez, on the other hand, has consistently maintained musical threads throughout his albums.
Over an eighteen-year career, the Swedish-Argentinian singer has preserved his intimate sound; sparse and cloudy instrumental textures, built up from complex acoustic guitar playing, against which he sets his hushed vocals. More often than not, Gonzalez’s deceptively simple lyrics are his greatest strength, as there is often a quiet and comforting confidence in the way that he humbly ruminates on religious and philosophical themes. His fourth record, Local Valley, is perhaps the best showcase yet of this lyrical confidence, and how good Gonzalez is at creating atmosphere in his music.
The lyrical confidence of Local Valley is showcased through his use of multiple languages; Gonzalez has hitherto written in the English language, yet the lyrics of the record’s opener, El Invento, are in Spanish. Gonzalez has stated that speaking to his young daughter in Spanish led him away from ‘hiding behind metaphors’ in English. No doubt, in El Invento he establishes a link between who he is now, and his heritage. Yet, moreover, here and throughout the album, his use of Spanish and Swedish places his music in a global context. He certainly seems more positive than he did on 2007’s In Our Nature, when he lamented our predisposition towards violence and dogma. Rather, the lyrics and soft guitar of El Invento establish a tone of wonder and curiosity, “at dawn when we see a world appear full of beauty and pain, tell me why it’s so?”.
Elsewhere, the optimistic atmosphere of Local Valley is maintained in Visions, The Void, Horizons, and Head On. In Visions, recordings of birdsong back up confident guitar strums, against which Gonzalez describes how humans persevere for happiness; “We are patiently inching our way toward unreachable utopias,” before he cries out bittersweetly “We are here together!”. Next, he turns his attention to deceptive leaders in The Void, who we “thought were sane with sceptre, cape and crown.” On Horizons, Gonzalez is content with the uncertainty expressed on the previous tracks, “to be at peace with knowledge and doubt”.
Gonzalez shows how he doesn’t need huge instrumental textures to get his message across
On the single Head On, perhaps the best track on the album, he describes moving on confidently towards these new ‘horizons’ for humanity. Head On is one of Gonzalez’s finest moments as a songwriter; the lyrics, ‘put on your new boots and deal with it’, alongside his rallying cry ‘head on’, convey that life should be lived to its full potential. Meanwhile his virtuosic guitar playing is at its most complex, energetic, and intense. However, the single percussive clap, and the lonely backing vocal on the final “head on!” give the song an admirable sense of restraint. Gonzalez shows how he doesn’t need huge instrumental textures to get his message across. His role in this album is like the character of a lonely troubadour, travelling and spreading a message of unity between warring parts of humanity. There is a surety of purpose here that is to the album’s benefit, and was perhaps lacking from the lyrical abstractness of 2015’s Vestiges and Claws.
Local Valley has both an expansive and personal perspective on the world, which is well demonstrated in the second half of the album. Gonzalez’s more personal songs, like Crosses and Heartbeats, are often very emotionally impactful. However, the personal songs of Local Valley are more playful than emotional; the gentle rhythms of Lilla G and Lasso In are upbeat and compellingly simple. Both songs are like comforting lullabies to the listener, Gonzalez asking us to ‘lasso in the ruminating thoughts’ to overcome anxieties and struggles.
The Caribbean-tinged Swing is perhaps one of the least compelling moments on the record; despite the positive message of the lyrics, the over-mixed drum machine and the tentative guitar work makes the song too lullaby-like to be very substantial. However, Swing is followed and preceded by Tjomme and Valle Local; both respectively written in Swedish and Spanish, in which sultry, Afrobeat-influenced guitar playing is layered over pulsing drum machines, creating a confident, Fela-Kuti-esque atmosphere. This confidence is matched by Gonzalez’s low register vocals in both songs. He expresses his determination to heal boundaries and for people to think independently.
Gonzalez is known as much for his cover songs as he is for his originals. There are two such tracks on Local Valley; on Stund pa Jorden Gonzalez covers Iranian Swedish artist Laleh, and on Line of Fire, he reinterprets his own music, with his other project, the band Junip. Both tracks are moodier and more contemplative takes on the bright-upbeat tone of the originals, but they seem to lack much significance in context of the broader record. Yet following these two loose ends, Gonzalez ties up Local Valley with Honey Honey, in which he serenades a loved one. The bird-song and sparse mixing bring us into an intimate, personal world. No longer is he singing about human nature; the scale decreases as he describes interpersonal bliss.
Gonzalez does not step in a drastically different direction for Local Valley. Instead, he sticks to a well-trodden path, as the record is weaved with thematic lyrical threads that he has touched upon before. Moreover, despite the frequent use of drum machines, this is arguably the most stripped-back Jose Gonzalez record yet, due to the intimately mixed vocals and economical song-writing. However, Local Valley is no less fresh and exciting, perhaps even more so than its predecessors. The intimate, autumnal and optimistic tone is like a warm fire on a cold day; comforting and well-needed in these confused times. Local Valley is a strong addition to Gonzalez’s already impressive discography; displaying the lyrical maturity of a highly experienced songwriter and father-of-two, with a profound understanding of human nature.
Written by: Caradoc Gayer
Edited by: Joe Hughes