Humanism: “an approach to life based on reason and our common humanity.” This philosophical viewpoint is a theme that runs through Gothenburg-born José González’s fourth and first album in six years, the multilingual yet cohesive Local Valley. The focus on humanism is unsurprising when considering that the 43-year-old Swede had already woven atheistic lyrics into his previous releases, but becoming a father to his daughter Laura has given him greater confidence in expressing his thoughts of a humanistic life principle, perhaps because he wants to carry it on to his offspring – the singer had admitted that he wrote more metaphorically in the past. Furthermore, this newfound self-belief has made him take risks in his production methods and embrace his heritage without fear, with this being his first album to feature Swedish and Spanish language songs among the English songwriting. These tracks are not a novelty either as they are equally strong in their intellect to their English counterparts.
‘El Invento’ and ‘Valle Local’ are the songs performed in Spanish. The former album opener might be in a different vernacular but it’s undeniably José González: just his calming voice and intricate Nick Drake-ish acoustic guitar performance. As it’s the beginning of proceedings it sounds like a continuation of his previous albums but the change in language hints that he has still developed as a musician. “The invention” of its title refers to human existence and how everyone at one point asks themselves existential questions – who are we? where are we from? where are we going? The lyric: “A la gente del libro. Pretendiendo entender. Los enigmas del unankereime por qué será,” (loosely translated as to the people of the book that pretend to understand the enigmas of the universe) is one of many times where Gonzalez challenges people of faith, as he promotes the idea of limitless of knowledge over stubborn single-mindedness. Despite its Spanish lyrics, the speedier ‘Valle Local’ – one of the tracks that admittedly is frustratingly short – has the tone of African style of music, in particular Tuareg.
This influence of music from the land of the Sahara is also heard on the bouncy earworm ‘Swing’. Initially sounding like a lazy soundtrack to an animal-themed animated picture such as Madagascar; it becomes better on repeated listens. The lyrics are surprisingly straightforward for an artist usually so serious and analytical, demonstrating that the man has multiple sides to his writing, whilst also springing to mind another musician that promotes the idea of following your natural impulse – Sinkane. One other noticeable trait is the inclusion of a drum machine beat. This is also employed in ‘Lasso In’, a song that encourages people to soak in the physical human experience more, rather than taking it for granted, in an intelligently worded González way: “Follow through the swells. Feel the sting burn and melt away. Sunrays caress your tingling skin. Note the state your disposable soma is in”. The other track with a drum machine is ‘Tjomme’ – one of the two songs to be in his native tongue of Swedish.
‘Tjomme’ (a Swedish slang word for ‘mate’) is one of the strongest tracks lyrically on Local Valley, as it’s the strongest critic of religious doctrines, with it being the opposite to the free-thinking of humanism. Roughly translated as: “Dare not think for yourself. Based all on ancient hearsay. Dare not think for yourself. Blindly trusts old text. Dare not think for yourself. Just listening to an old fool. Who heard something from another.” The other Swedish-language track is a cover of compatriot Laleh’s En stund på Jorden. As with all of José González’s other past covers – from Massive Attack to The Knife – he performs it with such heart that it sounds like his version is the original. Laleh wrote the lyrics after her mother died and tap into González’s humanistic theme by sounding both evolutional and reflecting on the momentary nature of being alive: “Who landed in the sea. When we took the first steps from the ocean. It hit me that time. When we waded through the water.”
Local Valley is a record that communicates José González’s identity not only through his beliefs but also the importance of his recently grown family. ‘Lilla G’ is the antithesis to his smart logic, it’s a whistling singalong with barely any lyrics, but was written specifically for his daughter. ‘Swing’ features backing vocals from his wife Hannele Fernström, who also co-wrote the lyrics and being a visual artist designed the album cover for Local Valley. The LP was also recorded at his home studio in a forest area outside of Gothenburg, giving him the idea to feature field recordings of birds on three songs, adding to the record’s warm and homely nature. On his eclectic yet connected new release, José González sounds both like his talented self and a man that has grown mentally in the last six years.