José González makes music that sounds nice. And not just quite nice – very nice. It is as though he were exploiting his background in biology to hack into the human body and give us sounds that make us feel warm and at ease. The elements are simple: nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, percussion that often sounds like it could have been tapped out on a guitar, and González’s distinctive voice, barely above speaking volume. It all feels effortless.
“Tune in, realise nothing’s wrong”, he murmurs on the second track, and whilst he’s literally referring to birdsong, ‘Let it Carry You’ is something of a mission statement. Enjoying this music feels like giving in, and it’s hard not to take his advice to “Lose some built up tensions/And let it carry you away”.
There may be something lost in translation in the opening of the next song, ‘Stories We Build, Stories We Tell’ – “Got myself fingering over you”. But finger he does. Throughout the record the guitar is astonishing, but it feels effortless rather than polished. Van Morrison was apparently known to record albums in a single sitting, with the final record reflecting a sense of urgency. Vestiges and Claws certainly wasn’t recorded in this way, but it does feel as though González could have sat down and played the whole thing in a one quiet, untroubled session. There are very few buzzing strings or missed notes, but despite the technical brilliance there remains a sense of immediacy and momentum, brought out by the continuous guitar and galloping percussion. At times the guitar is spectacular, as on ‘Stories …’, at other times it’s relatively simple, as on the following track, ‘The Forest’.
“Why didn’t I see the forest on fire behind the trees?”, sings González, slowly, a seemingly rare allusion to something in his personal life. He generally tries to tread a path between relatable and personally expressive, but some tracks run the risk of being too universal. José González’s music is often used for adverts and TV shows, and we might wonder if this is because it lacks personality. It’s certainly pleasant, but does it mean anything? A few songs on Vestiges and Claws are hard to get a grip on. On the other hand, where González’s expresses himself most lucidly he is least effective – ‘Open Book’ is both earnest and cliché-ridden, and is sadly a weak point on which to end the album. Still, most of the album’s lyrics hit the sweet spot between meaningful and ambiguous, and whilst they wouldn’t stand alone as poetry, there’s plenty to think about.
The final line of ‘Let It Carry You’, “To remind our restless souls of the beauty of being here at all”, has an echo of the closing line of Neutral Milk Hotel’s superlative ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’, “How strange it is to be anything at all”. But where the latter evokes an existential crisis, González captures a sense of contentment and appreciation. Where Jeff Mangum is awestruck in the face of existence, José González sees beauty and is fulfilled. Contentment is a dangerous disposition for an artist to have, and González ultimately doesn’t yet have the necessary life-experience or songwriting chops, resulting in imposing lyrics that lack complexity. But whilst his lyrics might not sit right with all listeners, González’s distinctive guitar and vocal styles make his music incredibly compelling, and here he offers some of his most interesting songs to date.
González has called himself an atheist, in fact his last album was inspired in part by reading The God Delusion, but he doesn’t sound like your typical Dick Dawkins fan. In fact he shows that you don’t need faith to produce spiritual music: Vestiges and Claws is a secular prayer, a therapeutic ode to existence that, despite some lyrical shortcomings, is beautiful and affecting.