José González is a singular artist who has a sound that is as distinctive as it is comforting. His rhythmic and skilful guitar playing is matched by soft, introspective vocals, all wrapped up in hypnotic and often haunting melodies. His music is subtle and enveloping, and above all carefully crafted, which might be gentle in delivery but is robust in construction.
González has taken an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach on Local Valley, his fourth solo album since 2003. If his music hasn’t won you over yet, it’s not likely to now, but he has, once again, created a beautifully layered and strikingly unique piece of work, which stays true to his artistic vision.
“I set out to write songs in the same vein as my old ones: short, melodic and rhythmical, a mixture of classic folk singer-songwriting and songs with influences from Latin America and Africa,” explains González. Local Valley draws musical inspiration from a range of influences and this time he sings in three languages – Swedish, English, and for the first time, Spanish. The focal point is, invariably, his delicate yet powerful guitar playing, which is often reminiscent of John Martyn but always unmistakably his own sound.
Much of the warmth of the album comes from the intimate production values. Recorded in his home studio in Sweden, his guitar and vocals are always at the centre of the mix, filled out by some subtle drum machines, light over-dubbing and the natural sounds of his environment – the creaking of floors and the trilling of bird-song. It’s an interesting approach, bringing an unvarnished but anchored setting for each track.
Opening number El Invento is the first song González has recorded in Spanish, a nod to the language of his childhood (his parents fled Argentina’s military junta in the mid- ’70s) and a sprightly Latin feel underpins several other tracks. Stand-out Visions has a similar atmosphere, with its lovely running arpeggios floating under hopeful, humanist lyrics. ‘Together/ we are here together’ he sings, proving that music doesn’t have to be loud to be uplifting. The mood darkens somewhat on The Void as a choir of José’s sing over a percussive beat to moody effect. This is echoed on Tjomme, which features a spoken word performance and soft yet driving beat. Horizons is a submersive affair, with its swirling guitar lines, while Valle Local feels closest in sound to his side-project Junip, and is the perfect showcase for his striking guitar playing.
Lilla G (written for his daughter) and Lasso In share a gentle finger-clicking vibe before González goes full bossa nova on Swing where he asks the listener to ‘shake your belly, baby’ and ‘swing your bum like seaweed’. It’s testament to his musicality that this song doesn’t jar as much as it could have. He quietens down again for the final track Honey Honey, which like all his best songs showcases his restraint, levity and perceptive layering of sound.
The strength of José González’s music is his ability to bring the listener not just into the room where the music was recorded, but right into the heart of the song. Thanks to his contemplative lyricism and graceful delivery, his music feels like a joyful and recognisable ode to the beauty of being alive. On Local Valley, González is as wise, welcoming and effortless as ever.