Jose Gonzalez returns with graceful “Vestiges & Claws”

By Jackson Maxwell

If anything has plagued José González over the years, it is that his artistic identity was originally staked in interpretation, and not innovation. His breakthrough came over a decade ago, when his exquisite acoustic cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats” became a sensation.

His other major commercial success came on his second solo album, 2007’s “In Our Nature,” with another, equally exquisite acoustic interpretation of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” Though both “Nature” and its predecessor, 2003’s “Veneer,” had their share of well-developed songwriting from the man himself – “In Our Nature’s” “Cycling Trivialities” and “Veneer’s” “Crosses” continue to stand the test of time – González’s own songs mostly stood in the shadow of his well-known covers.

Perhaps noting this, González took a lengthy break from his solo work to focus on Junip, a band González had formed years before his solo success with two friends from his native Sweden. Junip’s two albums, 2010’s “Fields” and 2013’s self-titled release showed González exploring more avenues of songwriting, taking more risks and broadening his lyrical and musical scope.

Eight years removed from González’s last solo album, “Vestiges & Claws,” released Feb. 17, sounds at once reassuringly familiar and refreshing. His first album of all-original material, it is not only González’s most consistent back-to-front LP, but his most personal. Sonically rich, immaculately produced and lyrically insightful, “Vestiges & Claws” is a delightful return.

For starters, there is “With The Ink Of A Ghost.” From its sublime acoustic riff, González’s soothing voice and plaintive lyrics, even its mysterious title, this is vintage González from start to finish. His playing, as brilliant as it always has been, sounds more full and melodic than ever before. It provides a stirring counterpoint to one of the album’s best melodies and choruses.

“Stories We Build, Stories We Tell,” shows the first sign of a possible blues influence that permeates “Vestiges & Claws.” In its structure, González’s vocal delivery and the deep, bass-heavy riff that the song is propelled by, the song definitely recalls the American blues-folk tradition. “The Forest” uses subtle strings to its advantage, standing out as one of the album’s most ethereal moments. “Why didn’t I see/the forest on fire behind the trees?” Gonzalez quietly asks, ruminating on a missed opportunity, or perhaps trying to leave something significant behind.

“Leaf Off/The Cave” is the album’s most energetic moment, with lively percussion and a restless riff to keep it moving, while the moving “Every Age” almost touches on gospel. Though “What Will” and the instrumental “Vissel” meander a bit, the jungle rhythms of “Afterglow” set the stage nicely for the album’s lovely closer, “Open Book.”

“Open Book” might be the album’s most notable track, in that it may be González’s most personal and simple to date. “Lately I’ve found myself in doubt,” he muses, “asking myself what it’s all about/what am I doing here/what’s this leading to?” Everyone has asked themselves these very questions once in awhile, but to hear a songwriter who is always so precise and cooly in charge question himself is jarring. But, as a closer, it leaves you more invested in “Vestiges & Claws,” wanting to return to the previous tracks to find clues that led González to the apathy he describes in its closer.

To describe an album as well-constructed and detailed as “Vestiges & Claws” with “easy listening” would be a grave insult. But, it is incredibly easy to listen to. Like all of González’s music before it, it is a record that doesn’t take a whole lot of investment on your part. “Vestiges & Claws,” as González’s first all-original effort, stands out as his finest, most concise and enjoyable LP to date.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]