Parenthood is often the impetus for a significant change in the life you’ve been living up to this point. It focuses you on your roots, puts the choices and lifestyle you’ve adopted into question, and causes you to examine what your child will pick up from you. You can’t be so selfish anymore. You can’t be so reckless. You are now no longer alone, and everything you do, directly or indirectly, will affect the new life you’ve brought into this world.
This is what I assume, seeing as, at this moment, I am currently childless. But what I can refer to are the changes that musicians have gone through within the process of having a child, and how that process affected their careers. The birth of Stevie Wonder’s daughter Aisha directly inspired ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ and convinced Wonder to make a loose concept album centred around a guided tour through existence, Songs in the Key of Life. The birth of John Lennon’s son Sean convinced him to put his music career on hiatus for half a decade. The loss of Joni Mitchell’s daughter to adoption motivated her to begin writing personal lyrics, and upon reuniting with her now-adult daughter roughly three decades later, Mitchell began to lose interest in songwriting.
We can now add José González to the list of examples as well, as the Swedish folk singer has returned from a half-decade long hiatus of his own to produce his fourth studio album, Local Valley. González’s absence was largely due to his new responsibilities as a father, and his return illustrates the changes in mindset that González is bringing to his new music.
The arc or González’s career can perhaps too easily be broken down into the cliches of growing older: his initial forays into music included stints with hardcore punk bands in and around Gothenburg, which he eventually softened to a more traditional rock sound. While pursuing a PhD, he became more ethereal and introspective, and he subsequently began performing in a more stripped down and intimate setting. It’s tempting to say that González has suddenly embraced maturity thanks to the birth of his child, but the truth is that the singer-songwriting had been progressing to this point for years.
If you’re looking for a reference point to jump into González’s music, some names that might invariably come up include Elliott Smith, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Silvio Rodriguez, and Sufjan Stevens. González has a similar spider web-thin delivery that causes you to lean in and listen intently, while his finger-style classical guitar picking provides a gentle bed from which his stories unfold. But the most unique aspects that separate González from the rest are the themes that float around his lyrics.
Of course, parenthood is a major theme on the album, with González wrestling with his newfound responsibilities and expanded outlook, but his concerns and interests don’t start and end with his child. Connections to nature, references to economics, the impact of social unrest, and discontent with authority figures all play into Local Valley. Multiculturalism and identity become major points, with González occasionally slipping into Spanish to drive the point home. The images often leave themselves widely open for interpretation, but González never makes his intentions vague or half-formed. They remain purposefully ambiguous, allowing for the listener to impart their own experiences onto González’s words.
Does the guitar and vocal format become repetitious as the album unfolds? Yes, and González doesn’t feel a strict desire to differentiate the songs with alternative sounds or hooks. If González has added a bit more variety in his arrangements than Local Valley, like he does on standout tracks like ‘Swing’ and ‘Head On’, it would have had far more memorability and impact, but as it stands the style he chooses to perfect is soothing and fully embraced. He might only work in one idiom, but it’s fair to say González has perfected that idiom, for better or worse.
Perhaps that’s the significant change that González found within fatherhood: a new openness and confidence in himself. González had previously relied on distinct mellowed out covers to get attention, and while he disposed of those gimmicks on his previous LP Vestiges & Claws, the results often felt nebulous and indistinct. Not the case with Local Valley, a tranquil LP that never lets calmness and vulnerability become boring or amorphous. Whether it’s for his child or just for himself, González has refined his music to become the best version of his own personal identity, and it can easily be heard throughout the thirteen tracks that make up Local Valley.