I am not going to beat around the bush on this one. I am going to come right out and say it. If you are not listening to Jose Gonzalez—if you have never listened to Jose Gonzalez—then your life is the poorer for it.
I have always had an affinity for folk, or folkish music—I was raised on a steady diet of Peter, Paul and Mary, with some John Prine, the occasional Dylan tune, and a great deal of James Taylor. I was a sucker for Nick Drake the first time I heard him. I like maudlin and quiet music; I like strings.
What I don’t like is how often folkish artists are ruined by producers—by other artists who want to ‘flesh out the sound”. My brother and I have debated about this many times. I despise the way some of Nick Drake’s tracks have been ruined by horns and over-instrumentation. One of my brother’s favorite recent aristists, Ray LaMontagne, sounds great when he plays alone with his guitar, but I cursed when I acquired his album: filled with bells, whistles, horns and the touch of too heavy a producer’s hand.
It is not that I am against noise. Artists like Trent Reznor and Beck make beautiful music from uncommon sounds. The problem, as I see it, is that folk singers like Drake and LaMontagne write their music alone with a guitar—the song is itself and complete without the noises that the recording process often introduces.
But I digress. I want to fill you with love, not disdain.
I first heard Nick Drake from a giant who was subletting the other room in my apartment in NYC. He gave me a stack of albums that were to be released in the coming year (he was interning at a record company). The albums included work by Why? (Elephant Eyelash) and M. Ward in addition to Jose Gonzalez’s Veneer.
As soon as I listened to this album, I knew it was something special. I loved it enough that I could do anything to it—except for reading, because the music kept pulling me in. I quickly bought every EP and collaboration credited to Gonzalez. His other work is good—his band Junip’s work is melodic and full. But nothing compares to the somber beauty of this album.
I tried my best to make my wife appreciate the music, but she quickly dismisses maudlin-sounding guitar music. And so she dismissed Gonzalez until we went to see him perform. We caught his performance during a sunny afternoon at a music festival, and, as I arranged it, we were right at the edge of the stage. When Gonzalez came out and started playing, my wife was shocked. She could not believe the complexity and richness of the music coming from one man playing alone.
To this day, while she still wonders aloud how I can listen to such quiet music without wanting to die, she concedes that she would watch him play at any opportunity. And so should you. But first, listen.
The first great song on the album is “Lovestain”; the track begins with a driving finger-picking pattern that varies with slight flourishes and builds in sound through each rotation. When the vocalists comes in with the strange lyric “You left a lovestain on my heart” handclaps softly accompany him. At times, the vocalist doubles up with a harmony. But that’s about it. Guitar. Voice. A little percussion.
Gonzalez might not have the most interesting or dynamic voice (like Ray LaMontagne) or the same mastery of melodies as a Nick Drake, but he has a dreamy, sometimes even nightmarish, and unique sound. No one reminds me of him.
The double-tracking of the voice is used to beautiful effect on the fourth song of the album “Heartbeats”. Again, the song begins with a finger-picking pattern, this one heavier on the bass strings, rolling forward and pushing to the vocals that, with a slight reverberation effect, hang strikingly over the composition:
One night to be confused
One night to speed up truth
We had a promise made
Four hands and then away
The chorus is a bit louder, the harmonies a bit broader (and closer to a major scale), but with completely enigmatic lyrics: “To call for hands of above / To lean on / Wouldn’t be good enough / For me, no”. Admittedly, when written out, the lyrics seem nonsensical or foolish. But the way Gonzalez stretches the vowels and utters the syllables with his true tone makes them sound profound.
The bass line fades away for the bridge and just once, Gonzalez lets his fingers splash through the treble strings before going back. Gonzalez makes giant steps with the smallest movements of his hands.
And this is one of the themes of the album. The album starts with a slightly syncopated finger picking rhythm in a minor key—only the guitar is there until Gonzalez sings hauntingly “the compromise between honesty and lies”. He lengthens the vowels of “cOmpromise” and between” so that each word functions almost as a full line. For the chorus, he adds in a harmonizing vocal, a light and higher keen above his baritone voice.
If you listen with good headphones or in a quiet room, you can hear the squeak of his fingers on his left hand as they move across the strings on the fretboard and the slight percussion of his right hand plucking.
The second track “Remain” accelerates the pace, more of a doubled strum sound than the finger-picking of the first track; this time the sound is rounded out with percussion. The fifth song, “Crosses”, also quite well-known, probably creates the best crescendo on the album and presents the strongest turns in Gonzalez’s voice.
He follows up the nearly raucous sounds (as loud as I can imagine a human being plucking strings without them breaking) with the longer and more quiet beginning of “Deadweight on velveteen” which takes 30 seconds to build as the fingers spend more time pulling a short melody out of the treble strings. When the vocalist returns with lines like “vulgar when brought to life”, however, we know we are not in a world of sweetness and light”.
Some sweetness seeps through on the eighth track, “Stay in the Shade”, where the somber lyric “Stay in the shade / until you reach the grade” is accompanied by a finger picking pattern that provides a real bass line but dwells mainly in the middle strings with flourishes in the higher register between phrases. Here, too, we hear a light percussive beat, probably on a hand-drum, but believably tapped out on the surface of a guitar.
In my opinion, if this album has a soul, it is split between the leaps of “Heartbeats” and the churning, hammer-down riff of “Hints” where the sparer picking pattern alternates with a second guitar line that channels some rougher emotion. Again the percussion, a beat every measure or so, could be a hand slapping the guitar. Here Gonzalez drops the doubled vocal track as he repeats the few words of the entire song:
While the crowd is waiting for the final kiss
The one which allows them to sleep well
We’ll walk along our own path
The one which will lead us to our own bliss
But we need hints before we get tired
We need speed before we lose pace
We need a hint to know we’re on the right track
Simple, but elegant words defying easy interpretation. The vocal hangs above the rolling guitar. Is this a metaphor for death? Perhaps. The ambiguity lets us read ourselves into the song and to forget that someone else sings these words.
In part, I think that this is what draws me to folk music—the simplicity of the performance, belied by the complexity of the lyrics, is often so much more intimate than other forms of music; folk music makes connections with its audience that other music may (or can) not. Or at least it does for me.
And let’s be honest, I also have a weakness for music steeped in sorrow. But the thing is, I don’t really think Gonzalez’s music is that sad—it just sounds that way. If that makes any sense. This is music for quiet contemplation, for reflection, for regret and the promise of a better day. If I am inspired by the contemplation of loss, does that make me in some way perverse?
In any case, Veneer, an album whose title points both to the superficiality of music and the promise that something deeper lies within, is one of my favorite albums ever. Another lock for the Desert Island List.
And what do you think, my brother?