Local Current Blog

José González and the light that leads us out

Photo by Leah Garaas/MPR

There are so many different ways to think about music and how we interact with it. We can enjoy it from a technical perspective, marveling at an artist’s proficiency at their instrument or the way they hit the notes just right. We can examine it intellectually, taking apart each lyric in an attempt to unpack its many meanings. We can think about it academically, contemplating where it fits in the history of music, or alongside the other sounds that are being made right now. Or we can try to pinpoint what it does to us emotionally, the way it preys on our memories and reminds us of who we were and reconnect who we wanted to become. It’s this last one that really fascinates me, partly because it can be so hard to tie down; how can we even explain that tingly, heart-in-throat feeling when a song’s sound, tone, lyrics, and vibe conspire with the setting of the performance and everything else going on in our lives to sneak up and smack us right between the eyes?

I’ve always approached José González’s voice with great caution. Listening to him sing can be an overwhelmingly powerful experience, as his sorrowful, sonorous voice transmits poetic musings about nature and love and loss, to the point that it feels dangerous. The first time I saw him perform (a solo show at the Cedar in 2006), I found the experience so moving that I physically had trouble staying calm and sitting upright; I found myself wishing I could somehow get away with pushing my chair aside and curling up into the fetal position on the floor. The next 20 or 30 times I listened to his album, I made sure I always did so alone, either late at night circling the lakes in my car or laying down in my room with the lights out and headphones on, just me and his voice and the darkness. It’s not usually a good sign when your life becomes a series of quiet moments of self-imposed isolation, and it doesn’t feel so bad at the time, but when I look back now I can see that José González’s Veneer was the soundtrack to a period of depression so severe that I didn’t even fully comprehend its scale until it was behind me. His is the kind of music you put on when you’re in a very particular, introspective, moody space, not unlike Elliott Smith or Nick Drake or other artists who tenderly tiptoe into the deepest depths of human despair.

To get totally real about, I’ve been in a similar way this year. And there are so many reasons we’re not supposed to talk about this stuff, right? Because it might bum people out, or because it’s too hard to explain, or because it’s too personal, or because there’s a stigma around it and people might think you’re one of those people. The fact is that I am a highly functioning, prolific, and relatively happy human being who also suffers from severe clinical depression, and when I went to see José González perform at the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday night, it allowed me to take one of the clearest snapshots of my emotional state that I’ve been able to capture in quite some time.

I could tell you about how beautiful José González’s show was on Friday, how I was afraid that seeing him with a band would take away from the magic of that acoustic performance I saw so many years ago but how the musicians actually added just the right little acoustic guitar flourishes and percussive elements, widening and deepening the songs without overwhelming them. I could tell you about the way the crowd stood so still, or how he brought giant old movie set spotlights that stood at the back of the stage, or the way the percussionists all sang in a delicate harmony that rose like a sunset behind José’s amber melodies. But what stuck with me after the show, and what I’m still thinking about days later is that, for me, watching the performance unfold was like having someone reach out their hand and lead me through the all-consuming darkness of depression and onward toward a light, and an exit. And I’m so grateful to have taken that journey and come out on the other side.

José didn’t waste much time removing the protective casing from around our hearts and smashing it on the floor. By his fourth song, a positively devastating cover of Kylie Minogue’s “Hand on Your Heart,” the tears were flowing freely all around. How were we even going to get through this, if things were this heavy so early in the show? I actually thought about leaving at one point, trying to find some air and some space to let it all sink in. For those who struggle with depression, the act of confronting something sad can be daunting. It requires accepting a terrifying caveat: That sad thing might be just sad enough that the process of working through its layers of melancholy becomes cathartic and powerful, or the sad thing might be so unbelievably sad that it silently closes the door, drips its melting black tar over all the windows, shuts off all the lights, and eats us whole.

But then I started listening closer to the lyrics, and even the ones cloaked in melancholy and sung out above the deepest, fattest minor chords offered up these little flickering flames of hope. “We need hints, before we get tired,” he pleaded on the searching solo rendition of “Hints,” while “Crosses” gave more specific advice: “People staring, they know you’ve been broken / Repeatedly reminded by the looks on their faces / Ignore them tonight and you’ll be alright / We’ll cast some light and you’ll be alright.”

It was around this point in the show that I realized that the four or five large spotlights at the back of the stage had gradually been turned from a low glow to a moderate cast of light. By the end of “Down the Line,” with all of his bandmates singing “Don’t let the darkness eat you up” in brilliant harmony, the lights shone brighter and brighter and brighter until you could see every trusting face in the room.

I know the show didn’t have the same effect for everyone, and I’m not trying to make it out to be some kind of soul salvation party where we all defeated our inner demons and went home better human beings. But something about that performance kicked me right in the gut, and it made me want to keep searching and keep fighting and keep trying to figure out just what it is about music that can soothe us and speak to us the way nothing else can. If nothing else, I know I’ll be looking back on these lyrics and listening to this song, “Leaf Off/The Cave,” the next time I need a little light:

Why can’t you take the leaf of your mouth?
Now that you have the facts on your side
Take a moment to reflect who we are
Let reason guide you
See all tracks lead you out from the dark
How the light feeds life
What makes up you and I
What it takes to thrive
What we need to survive
How we flourish and die
What it means to be alive
What it means to be alive

Make the light lead you out
Make the light lead you out
Make the light lead you out
Make the light lead you out
Make the light lead you out
Make the light lead you out
Make the light lead you out
Make the light lead you out
Make the light lead you out

José González stopped by the Current on Friday to play three songs and chat with Jade. Find the full session here.

  • Nicholas Kline

    Wow! That was some heavy stuff. Everything that you said about the place that Jose Gonzalez has the ability to take you to, reminds me so much of the periods of depression, angst and despair that I can remember going through in my twenties. I’ve never been able to fully understand why a certain record could rip me to pieces and leave me sobbing in my car. You put it very nicely when you said that a particular kind of artist can “tenderly tiptoe into the deepest depths of human despair.” That is truth.
    I look back at the times that I felt like this and think that it sure was a lot of lost time that I will never get back. However, I am really glad that I went through it. Things are so much better when on the other side. There is so much introspective work going on when a person is struggling with their emotional health, that it really helps to have a good soundtrack.

  • chrysalis

    Thank you for sharing theses honest feelings of depression and the unique experienceds of José and his music. His album is at the top of my list and now I have more to look forward to today, while listening to his music and seeing him live.