Singer-Songwriter Jose Gonzalez Returns After Seven Years With the Stunning ‘Local Valley’: Album Review

Jose Gonzalez
Courtesy Mute Records

While he’s still best known for his pastoral cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats” popularized by a 2005 Sony Bravia ad (you know, the one with the balls bouncing through San Francisco), Swedish-Argentinian singer Jose Gonzalez’s interpretation of that song includes all of the hallmarks of his stellar solo work. Gonzalez has a soft voice and softer sound (we once witnessed a South by Southwest performance where he was almost completely drowned out by an impressively inebriated crowd’s chatter) and often performs solo, accompanying himself on classical guitar and subtle effects, so it’s too easy to categorize him as a Nick Drake-style folksinger. (He is also a member of the long-running alt-rock group Junip, and tours with a backing band, the Brite Lites).

Yet that limiting term overlooks the deceptive complexity of his songs and arrangements, and the ways in which his songwriting incorporates the patterns and textures of electronic music in a way that makes some of his songs almost ambient, with a near-subconscious secondary layer of hypnotic repetition and atmospherics. Both musically and lyrically, in his best songs there are two layers: The surface and the subtext (no coincidence the song “Void” here begins with the lyric “Layer upon layer”). And the electronic music analogy cuts both ways, too: Sometimes it’s more high-energy, like with “Head On,” where he builds the melody and dense embellishments on a recurring rhythmic guitar figure that, in a different context, would be danceable; on “Tjomme,” he’s rocking away to a gently thumping beat, singing a simple-seeming lyric while basically jamming with himself (although it turns out the song’s lyrics are an enraged rant at an unnamed “dude”). And “Swing” is practically a tropical dance song.

“Local Valley” is unmistakably a Gonzalez album, but there are a number of changes in this one: It’s his first solo album to use computerized rhythms rather than the subtle percussion of his past efforts, and it’s the first to include lyrics in all three of the languages he speaks (English, Spanish and Swedish). But it’s also arguably his most energetic solo album, with many of the hushed Nick Drake-isms of his past work giving way to a sound that is less a fundamental change — it’s still mostly him and his guitar — than a livelier take on his format. There are more multi-tracked vocals, more guitars and many of the songs are more direct. And although a couple of the African-influenced songs get a little candle-and-incense-boutique, the penultimate track, a cover of Iranian-Swedish artist Laleh’s “En Stund Pa Jorden” (“A Moment on Earth”) is so beautiful it’s practically a hymn.

It also, like his previous solo albums, is multi-functional in that, to a degree more than most albums, it works equally well as lean-forward or lean-back music — the listener can focus on it or simply have it on as atmosphere that enhancing the environment without distracting from it. And although many of the songs’s lyrics have, as Gonzalez puts it in the press materials, “a crystal-clear, secular humanist agenda: anti-dogma, pro-reason,” it’s not like he hits you over the head with it. In fact, he doesn’t hit you over the head with anything. Unlike so many artists today, Gonzalez isn’t the kind of artist who demands attention; if you like what you hear, the door’s open.