Less is best

By SHARON STEEL  |  March 4, 2008

Veneer’s early popularity was fueled in part by González’s aching cover of “Heartbeats” (originally recorded by Swedish electronica outfit the Knife), which was featured in an ad campaign for a Sony Bravia television. Soon a viral YouTube video of the commercial was circulating. Thousands of small, multi-colored bouncing balls careered in a wild ballet through the streets of San Francisco, with the stripped-down “Heartbeats” as the only soundtrack to their dance. Veneer earned González a string of European awards and, in 2006, a US deal with Mute. Critics championed its bossa-nova-meets-Amerindie æsthetic, and the Nick Drake and Elliott Smith comparisons flowed in. Yet González still thinks of the tunes on Veneer as mere sketches. For In Our Nature, he says, “I wanted to make proper songs.”

Retaining the basic elements of Veneer — an acoustic guitar and his balmy tenor — he added percussion, courtesy of Erik Bodin, and a spare of backing vocals by Yukimi Nagano. There’s even a touch of synthesizer (Håkan Wirenstrand). And he found himself drawing more and more from Brazilian music and beyond, citing João Gilberto as a big inspiration, along with Fela Kuti and Nina Simone. The upbeat drumming and the ivory tickling are charming additions to his songs. But they remain as subtle as a whisper. If Veneer is a melancholy Seattle winter when your seasonal depression forces you to buy a light-therapy lamp, Nature is a too-long South American summer spent weeping over your cruel paramour in a beach shanty.

González delights in unconventional cover songs; he turned Kylie Minogue’s saucy, capering “Hand on Your Heart” into a love-struck hymn on his 2006 EP Stay in the Shade and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” into a brutal acoustic punch on another 2006 EP, Remain (Hidden Agenda). On Nature, it’s “Teardrop,” a Massive Attack cover, that functions as a placeholder and the disc’s turning point, where swirling themes of passion and longing shift from universal to navel gazing. But it’s González’s own austere, bedroom compositions, often saturated in darkness, that reveal the real emotional bruises. “I put the songs so the least personal are first and the most personal at the end,” he says of the disc’s arrangement. Indeed, things get much more confessional as Nature progresses. “Please don’t let me down this time/I’ve come a long way to just fold back into line,” he begs on “Fold,” a sad, slow, finger-picked waltz and Nature’s second-to-last track. But it’s not until his finale, the eight-minute “Cycling Trivialities,” that he exposes how he feels about what could be his sorrowful future. Or maybe it’s about God? Or perhaps just his romantic failures? The more poetic the lyrics, the more miserable he is. “All this time you were chasing dreams/Without knowing what you wanted them to mean. . . . Who cares in a hundred years from now/All the small steps, all your shitty clouds.”

Despite his being anointed as the new Nick Drake and the penchant for a sparse, quiet, confessional indie æsthetic that he shares with the likes of Low, Cat Power, and Songs: Ohia, González has chosen not to unzip his emotional baggage all the way — that just isn’t his style. “I mean, I use myself — I draw from personal experiences, but not always. Sometimes I mix it up with other people’s stories. But I always aim at making music that makes you feel a lot.” He laughs. “Sometimes, it’s very dramatized.”

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