Making intimate music is easier for a solo performer than for a band for a reason that is purely common sense: If you only have one person playing, the songs can be as tiny and personal as they want to be. But José González’s minuscule songs are more potent than most. With an acoustic guitar and a whispering voice as his only tools, González designs quietly beautiful music. His songs are poetic and yearning, and all are painted on a postcard-sized canvas. An easy example of this is his well-known cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats”: González stripped the beat-heavy, gothic club track down to its core components and reminded listeners that, beneath the synthesizers of the original, the song had a strong melody and a set of lovelorn lyrics that gave “Heartbeats,” well, a pulse.
But the Swedish singer-songwriter with Argentinian roots is not just interested in distillation. Junip is his band with drummer Elias Araya and keyboardist Tobias Winterkorn, and though it’s been in existence since the late 1990s, the band only released its debut album, Fields, in 2010. González’s intention with Junip has always been to get bigger sounds than he does as a soloist, which, again common sense will tell you, is easier to do with a larger ensemble. The three-piece did make things a little louder on Fields, but it felt almost choked by the thread of quiet intimacy that González wrapped around his guitar-picking fingers on his own releases. The downside to this consistency in tone was that Junip’s music lacked any elements of surprise. Yes, the drums added drive, and the synthesizers gave an electrified contrast to the acoustic guitar, but the songs all maintained the same even keel; nothing ever burst.
That’s changed on Junip, the trio’s sophomore release, where González’s bigger-sound ambitions are finally realized. Opener “Line Of Fire” rises up like a slow-moving tidal wave, the metallic prickling of the guitar, the lulling notes of the synthesizers and the muted-though-present percussion ebbing and flowing until everything builds to a climactic crash by the string-swarmed end. That swirling, tumbling sensation in the music runs through the album from start to finish. Even when the songs slow, there’s still a tide pushing you along.
González fronts Junip, but Araya and Winterkorn have too much of a presence on this album to be labeled as supporting cast. Araya likes his gentle shakers, his tambourine rings and his hand-hit drums, but he also drops rhythmic wallops on the sinister “Villain” and clock-like ticking on “Suddenly.” Winterkorn’s work on the keyboard often appears as a low hum that fills in the songs’ blanks like a bass line, but he dusts “Walking Lightly” with glimmering, upper-register notes played in double and triple time, and his spacey buzzes on “Suddenly” send a far-reaching ripple through the song, like drops of water in a still pond.
As the man giving voice to the band, González remains the shy centerpiece. He never stretches his singing too far beyond his safe zone—he lets the instruments shoulder the burden of growth—but his voice is less dainty than it was on albums like Veneer. The more forceful delivery is necessary to help lift him above the louder instruments, but it’s also a result of the content he’s carrying. He’s in a lecturing mood on album highlight “Your Life Your Call,” advising “dry up your tears” and “pull yourself together.” But those demands all relate to a tough-love message: “No point in looking back/Over your shoulder/Leave your worries behind/For a while/You’ll forget everything/As you get older.”
González is most comfortable keeping his emotional distance, as he does with nonchalant, go-with-the-flow lines like “If it’s all right with you, then it’s all right with me” on “So Clear” and in a song title like “Your Life Your Call.” But he does open up on Junip with songs like “Suddenly” (“Keep our love growing, growing, growing/Each time I’m next to you”) and “Head First” (“I keep asking myself how it came tumbling down”). It’s got to be a challenge for a guy who sounds so reserved when singing and favors poetic vagueness to give first-person acknowledgment to the fate of a relationship. There aren’t a ton of plain-speaking moments on this LP, but their sporadic appearances mark his personal growth victories on the album.
That’s part of what makes González so intriguing: that the songs of a guy who is often willing to provide little more than a supporting pat on the back still come off as emotionally rich. Some of that is a credit to González’s restraint—his aversion to heart-tugging phrases makes his smaller moments of openness that much more powerful—but it also has to do with the shrinking and swelling instruments that say what the lyrics do not. After hearing Fields, it seemed silly to call Junip González’s band because it felt too timid to be a group collaboration. But now, it makes sense. This is a more assertive team of three musicians listening and responding to each other. The sounds are bigger on Junip, but it’s the audible give and take among the performers this time that makes the album intimate.