In an age where, to quote Arctic Monkeys, “there’s only music so that’s there’s new ringtones”, José González makes for an unlikely star. A 28 year old Swedish resident, born to Argentinean parents, his debut album is minimal, sparse and can get pretty dark. Not the sort of thing you can imagine blaring out of the nearest Nokia, that’s for sure.
Unlikely as it may seem, González’s musical journey began with hardcore punk as bass player in the Big Black influenced Back Against The Wall and Renascence, before trying his hand at indie pop. Yet an upbringing steeped in his father’s love of classical guitar meant that he found his niche in the South American tinged melancholy folk music that Veneer specialises in.
Despite the relatively uncommercial nature of González’s work, it appears that the mainstream has come knocking. The single Heartbeats has been featured on an eye-catching advert for Sony flatscreen televisions, while the excellent Crosses has gained The O.C. treatment, being used in a recent episode of the hip teen drama. Yet if anyone’s buying this expecting a comfy ‘coffee-table album’, they could well be disappointed.
González’s music is infused with the spirit of Nick Drake – most tracks just feature an acoustic guitar and his rich, expressive voice. There’s hints of fellow Nordic band Kings Of Convenience, but the arrangements are more muscular here. As befits the acoustic setting, all the songs here are very strong, as indeed they have to be in order to stand up in such a sparse background.
As befits a man who’s mastered the cover version (an extraordinarily emotive rendition of Kylie Minogue‘s Hand On My Heart is in his repertoire, although not on this album) one of the standout tracks here is Heartbeats, originally by Swedish synth duo The Knife. González drops all the retro stylings from the song, transforming it into an hypnotic, beautiful love song.
There’s plenty of equally magnificent moments as well – Remain ups the tempo a bit, with flamenco touches adding a very Spanish flavour, while Lovestain is just stunning. Dark and mysterious, with González singing some of the saddest lyrics you’ll hear all year, it’s one of the best tracks on here.
There may be some people who might find the relentless introspection all a bit gruelling of course. Stay In The Shade sees González advising to “stay in the shade until you reach the grave”, while Save The Day has the arresting opening line of “poke the body with a stick”. In other hands it could become a bit too grim, but it works beautifully on Veneer. In fact the closing Broken Arrows, with its gorgeously mournful trumpet, could be the most uplifting two minutes you’ll have heard in quite a while.
There may not be much variation in pace in Veneer, but those who succumb to its languid charm will find that this becomes one of their most played albums. An album to grow old with, this is a wonderful notice of a very special talent.