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.
The journals and poems he produced during his 22-month stay, clearly show a man absorbing the multifaceted classical culture with an insatiable thirst.
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.”
But 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.
Racing 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.
Is 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.
A cynical visitor to this magical world may be tempted to cry foul here, and accuse our young artist of merely pillaging from greater minds.
But 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.
He 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 mark.
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 artistic supremacy.
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.