Ritual minus religion
Jose Gonzalez believes human nature is enough
In the 15 years since his music reached these shores, the Argentinian-Swedish artist Jose Gonzalez has evolved a genre of his own. His first album, Veneer, developed a cult following among fans of alternative-folk music (and sparked countless comparisons to Nick Drake). He turned “Heartbeats,” the Knife’s surreal electro-pop gem, into a romantic masterpiece of simple finger-picked classical guitar and vulnerable vocals. On “Stay in the Shade,” the guitar-picking is fancy; there are some bongos and subtly overdubbed vocals—that’s it, and it’s devastating.
There have been just two more albums while Gonzalez spread his wings, forming a series of bands, touring with those bands and solo, and releasing mini-hits that explored a range of sounds. Recently, he’s toured with the brilliant contemporary classical ensembles Göteborg String Theory and yMusic. Critics universally describe his music as “minimalist”—and yet his rhythms, dynamics, influences and sonic textures are frequently complex.
In Our Nature, released in 2007, is a concept piece based on Gonzalez’ reading of contemporary philosophy, and features songs confronting religion and superstition. The song “Animal” consists of four words: “You are an animal,” set over a dazzling river of guitar. It feels like a chant, and it works like a meditation.
In an email this week from an Istanbul tour stop, Gonzalez writes that the piece was a last minute add-on to the album.
“I was thinking how the phrase is used in Spanish to mean, ’You’re a beast,’” he writes. “Then also thinking how we humans many times forget that we are animals. The whole album was vaguely inspired by evolutionary psychology—and this one felt like a nice simple addition.”
On a similar note, “Leaf Off / The Cave,” on 2015’s Vestiges & Claws, sounds like a joyful hymn for rationalists. “Why can’t you take the leaf off your mouth / now that you have the facts on your side? Take a moment to reflect where you’re from / let reason guide you.” A long crescendo builds up to what sounds like a folk-mass performed by a loose choir, driven by hand-claps, repeating the phrase, “Let the light lead you out!”
I asked him: “What does ’the light’ refer to?”
“Reality, cosmos, knowledge, reason.”
“’Out’ from where?”
“I was thinking of Plato’s cave. But also out from our semi-blind hiveminds.”
One doesn’t ordinarily find the immense inspirational lift of this song in atheist tracts. Gonzalez writes that it was his goal. “It was very intentional,” he writes. “I don’t think I succeeded though in making it as uplifting as it could be. I blame my lack of production skills.”
Asked directly to address the quasi-religious nature of the song, he replied: “We don’t need superstition for ecstatic rituals. (Think about The Beatles.)”
Because his music reveals both strength and vulnerability, I felt like checking in about his emotional state in the time of Trump.
“I like the blurry zone between art and satire and how it can be used to highlight incongruities. But it needs to be backed up by millions and millions of friendly interactions between people with different opinions and worldviews to move us past bumps in the road toward more enlightened societies.”
For the tour that brings him to the Crest Theatre next Tuesday, Gonzalez returns to his roots.
“I’ve done many tours with my latest album, but not that many on my own with just guitar,” he writes. “It’s the style that I feel is the most authentic. … It’s nice to go back once in a while to the simplicity of just me onstage, playing the versions that are most similar to the recordings. It keeps me on my toes.”