Earth is a speck in the universe. This is a common idea expressed by everyone from astronomer Carl Sagan to forwarded email threads from distant relatives with subject lines like “Feeling Small Yet?”. In Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, he laments the injustices and grievances humankind hold against one another on this “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” It’s a beautiful and humbling thought. Whereas Sagan celebrated life by looking outward at the vastness of the cosmos, Swedish singer-songwriter José González looks closer to home to examine our logic-defying existence on his third solo album, Vestiges & Claws.
González is far from the first artist to tackle this concept. Björk’s Biophilia and The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??” both took on this grand idea with massive musical arrangements and, in Björk’s case, created entire multimedia experiences to try to grasp the idea. González’s universe feels much more self-contained in comparison. He draws instead from the life all around him, whether that be nature or basic human interaction. He’s not trying to make sense out of stars; he’s more interested in these tangible things. This isn’t exactly new territory for González. On his last solo album, 2007’s In Our Nature, he explored evolution and naturalism. Back then, he centered himself on progress; this time he’s more or less admiring the view.
The nature imagery begins on the opener “With the Ink of a Ghost”, in which González relates walking through trails in the mist over peaceful yet haunting guitar tones. On “The Forest”, he dotingly describes the rain and mountain landscapes. He’s so caught up in the beauty of everything that he neglects the bad things, like a forest fire or cracks in a bridge. A flute wavers around his cooing vocals.
Despite taking a smaller look at the universe, this is actually his densest solo work yet. Having been focused on his band Junip, it sounds like he’s become more comfortable with fuller instrumentation on his own. Alongside his trademark whispery voice and fingerpicked acoustic guitar, he employs guitar overdubs and more percussive elements. One of the highlights of coming to a new González record is marveling at his guitar virtuosity. That’s all here again, but these slight new additions to his sound rival his dexterity. Having self-produced the record, he was able to maintain a certain level of rawness with these recordings. Strings buzz and ring throughout every track. When the drums come in, they feel large and demanding. His voice is hazy, almost like a speck in his own musical universe.
“Every Age” has the cadence and gall of a protest song, but politics are irrelevant to González’s message. A kick drum booms authoritatively underneath the sparse guitar chords as González preaches about “reaping what time and what we have sown.” Much of the song echoes Sagan’s sentiment that we all live on this planet whether we like it or not, so we need to take care of one another. It could be perceived as a sappy idea, but González’s delivery is poignant and bold. The way he sings each line between the choppy chords stresses the importance of his message, like a chant ready to be repeated.
Even with these rallying cries, he stays in step with his concept of hope. “Let the light lead you out,” he repeats on “Leaf Off / The Cave”. Guitars jangle vibrantly against each other, building a lush and infectiously enthusiastic atmosphere. Layers continue to build up on the song, yet he manages to keep it from feeling bogged down. As each new instrument or guitar line enters, the energy becomes more palpable.
Even sparser tracks like closer “Open Book” foster a desirable sentimentality. In stepping out to look at the world from a distance, he finds it easier to relate to other people. The idea he stresses on the song, that “your love belongs to everyone,” is wonderfully inclusive. It may feel unrealistic to expect community among billions of people, but González’s suggestion of taking care of one another may be as universal as one could surmise.
There’s plenty to get bummed about with life on Earth as we know it. It’s not difficult to find inhumanity running rampant and wars being waged. It’s easy to get caught up in it. It’s refreshing to hear a voice like González’s coming out and sticking up for the good things we forget: the serenity of the woods, the peacefulness of the clouds, the ability to have these experiences. He says it best himself on “Let It Carry You”. There’s plenty on our pale, blue dot “to remind our restless souls of the beauty of being here at all.”
Essential Tracks: “Let It Carry You”, “Leaf Off / The Cave”, and “Every Age”