Ever since his transfixing 2005 cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” earned him an international following, Swedish troubadour Jose Gonzalez has developed one of the most recognizable sounds in indie rock. His voice is a singular instrument, warm and textured, like a soft leather glove rubbing against skin, and he complements it with circular melodies played on a custom-tuned guitar, working in the astral-folkie vernacular explored by John Fahey, John Martyn and, of course, Nick Drake.
But fans of “Heartbeats” may be disappointed to find that Gonzalez’s third solo record, Vestiges & Claws, his first solo set since 2007’s In Our Nature, houses some of his least tuneful material to date. The 36-year-old is no stranger to melody; “Stay Alive,” his contribution to the film soundtrack to 2013’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, is drenched in it. But Vestiges & Claws is a study in restraint.
With its undulating rhythm and shimmering bass flute, “The Forest” would make for an excellent accompaniment to tai chi practice, while “Let It Carry You” plays like an exercise in minimalism, its guitar figure and wood-block percussion foregrounding lyrics one might hear at a meditation retreat: “See the migrant birds pass by/Taking off to warm skies/Hear them singing their song/Tune in, realize nothing’s wrong.” On “Vissel,” there’s some intentionally out-of-tune whistling juxtaposed with barely-there guitars. It’s an odd choice, but one that makes sense on an album that works better as a musical koan than it does a hip new collection of indie folk.