José González tried to reclaim something lost with Vestiges & Claws. He’s heard modern folk artists sing their stories to indie pop radio’s delight, heard them brush up a singer-songwriter’s sound with popish glow and nostalgic love of romance woven between verses and choruses. He knows that, today, folk is a bastardized thing; what once gave a voice to many is now relegated to tropes and easily digested drama.
Or, at least, that’s what I like to think drove the Swedish singer-songwriter to strip his folk songs down like he did on Vestiges & Claws. His new album foregoes much of folk’s standard pop for a natural heart, keeping things more barren and minimal. He’s never really alone as he muses over his guitars, but the somber production and tip-toeing percussion never do much more than rumble behind the scenes. It grounds González’s latest, leaving an album that feels more personal than many of his contemporaries’ attempts at folk music.
It’s in the songs themselves that Vestiges & Claws is left feeling, well, declawed. A few tracks showcase a songwriter with chops, like the dynamic opener “With the Ink of a Ghost” and closer “Open Book.” Yet, other songs—even with their infectious blues grooves and minimalist charm—lose that charm when you realize they rest on well-exercised clichés like tree of life metaphors or lazily roll through the same broken promises of your least-favorite love songs.
It’s for that reason that the instrumental “Vissel” is the crowning moment of Vestiges & Claws. Like its Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid forefathers, “Vissel” captures a moment with its humble aesthetics, reminding us that folk music’s ability to tell a story is in more than just a rhyme meter crooned over a series of chords.
González can sing a story and finger-pick a ballad like any folk singer, but his music’s grounded nature remembers a personal side to folk that seems lost in today’s modern sheen. Vestiges & Claws takes on a purist aesthetic that feels refreshing when left free to explore folk’s roots. Those last vestiges González finds are a reminiscent bliss—too bad his lyrical claws are so dull.