Veneer (Hidden Agenda, 2005)
by José González
originally published at Dusted Magazine
Veneer is a funny name for an album that appears to hide so little. If there are secrets, you wonder, where are they kept? Not between the immaculately picked guitar notes, or the call and response of Gonzalez's fragile tenor, or the haunting sparsity of his lyrics. There are simply no conspiratorial spaces, no layers to veil the naked earnest songness of the songs. It's just as well, too; understatement doesn't define the album's beauty, but it does fathom it and suggest there's no room, and no need, for ornament.
What's funnier is that listening to Veneer doesn't make you feel any closer to González. You know his parents are Argentinean and that his native Sweden adores him, but that's all off the page, as it were. There's soul on the record, in spades, but you're not convinced that it's his. The quiet plainness here doesn't feel like intimacy so much as complicit solemnity: Nick Drake's songs sound like insights into his infirmity (at least they do now), González's sound like testaments to his exquisitely gentle poetic sensibility, but little more. His lyrics are almost always unsettling, whether outright sinister (”Poke the body with a stick roll it down / Ignore the moaning as it tumbles to the ground”) or darkly comforting (”The grave looks cold but we're still young / We're still young”), yet there's no overbearing central character that ties them together. Maybe that's the guile, that what's missing is the tortured author, the doleful troubadour. Nobody's asking you to feel his pain.
Then again, you don't wonder why nobody asks you to feel Paul Simon's pain, or Sam Beam's. They get by on the clarity of their subtle and faintly fatalistic perspectives, and so does González. Veneer isn't prescriptively cut out for emotion; it's tempting, because pretty music lends itself so well to poignancy, but its melodrama is so clean and distilled that it sounds perfectly natural. So, for that matter, does the melody: songs like "Crosses" and "Heartbeats" are based on musical ideas so simple and right that they seem perfectly obvious, like it's a wonder nobody's done it before. (Actually, Swedish electro-pop outfit The Knife did do "Heartbeats" before, but González's reinterpretation sublimates the cheesiness of the original.) In others, the tune is less intuitive and more baroque, like the cagey "Slow Moves" and the particularly Drakeian "Stay in the Shade," but the baroqueness is distilled too, answerable more to an unusual chord change or two than a song-sized conceit. The classical guitar lines throughout are repetitive but just complex enough, González's voice is bold but versatile in its thickness; nothing else is needed.
The promise of Junip's (González with an organist and drummer) recent Black Refuge EP shows fairly convincingly that his songs can stand up equally well with further accompaniment, but less is much, much more on the 11 quiet masterpieces here. One hardly imagines that a more embroidered record from González would bear anything but the utmost elegance, but the bewitching, luminous simplicity of Veneer proves that any more than the seams would just be too rich.back