At 3 a.m. on an autumn night in 1786, the legendary German author
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quietly steals out of Karlsbad on horseback.
His destination: Italy, the (for him) half-mythical land beyond the
mountains, a world of Roman grandeur and Renaissance aestheticism.
journals and poems he produced during his 22-month stay, clearly show a
man absorbing the multifaceted classical culture with an insatiable
Several centuries later, José González, a young musician
of Argentinean descent raised among the fjörds of Sweden, embarks on a
similar aesthetic odyssey with his debut album “Veneer.”
where Goethe’s trip took him to the glittering nexus of a unitary
“classical” culture, González leads his listener through a more
cosmopolitan pantheon of sincere acoustic folk, taking in everything
from spicy Spanish flourishes to British pastoral balladeering on a
breakneck journey through his musical heritage.
frantically along like a Nordic horse under the light of Nick Drake’s
“Pink Moon,” the opening track, “Slow Moves,” paradoxically features
some of the most driving guitar work of the album, pulling the listener
into the whispered world of “Veneer” with its repetitive strums and
sparkling open chords.
The landscape is accentuated by features
like the pulsing summer shower of “Crosses” (a clear candidate for
“Best song snagged by the OC”) or dark-driving “Hints,” with its
haunting Alpine peaks.
On songs such as these, González reaches
the sort of confessional intimacy with which fellow Scandinavian
artists like Kings of Convenience’s Erlend Øye only flirt.
this album formulaic? By all means. Comparisons to other, more renowned
artists abound on the first listen. In González’s Rome,
beautifully-proportioned busts of Simon and Garfunkel adorn museums and
villas. Mark Kozelek (of the Red House Painters) paints riffs on a
Sistine ceiling for bossa nova Pope João Gilberto.
visitor to this magical world may be tempted to cry foul here, and
accuse our young artist of merely pillaging from greater minds.
what such a snap judgment fails to acknowledge is the artistic
achievement inherent in the deliberate replication of a specific form,
a talent that Gonzalez wields both powerfully and respectfully.
tears through familiar singer-songwriter territory with unfamiliar
vigor, guiding us around his spartan sonic landscape. González pays
homage at the scattered graves of the many troubled troubadours who
fell in wars with themselves (Drake, Elliott Smith, countless others)
and respond to the gaudy monuments erected by those who made their
Sure, he may be borrowing liberally from past greats in
the process of finding his own style, but some of Goethe’s “Roman
Elegies” might as well have been written by Virgil.
And yet, by
bringing their own, contemporary perspectives on the acknowledged
canon, both artists manage to not only remind us why their sources were
relevant in the first place, but to establish their own right to
That’s not to say that “Veneer” is without
missteps (“All You Deliver,” in particular, feels unfinished and
unsatisfying), or moments when the repetitive nature of the project
peeks through to the surface.
But these imperfections seem
almost besides the point; perfection doesn’t seem to be the goal here,
or even necessarily completion.