The Small Expressions 

Beholding the intimate, interpretive genius of Swedish folk crooner José González.

Noted rock critic Dave Eggers once declared Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" the "saddest song ever sung." Dave, as we all know, is not one to fuck around. Look beyond the psychotic hairstyles, the giddy pack of pogoing lasses, the relentlessly goofy keyboard solo, and the imposing presence of Captain Lou Albano, and indeed, the I Love the '80s anthem emerges as a somber, lamenting portrait of suburban patriarchal entrapment.

That shit is almost impossible to comprehend. What we can learn from this, however, is that the saddest, most poignant songs are often sung with blinding, unabashed joy, solely as a defense mechanism. Which explains why Sweden's José González -- yes, a guy from Sweden named José González (his dad is from Argentina) -- has ascended to dizzying heights of singer-songwriter excellence partly by burrowing deep into the cold, cold heart of a Kylie Minogue song.

Specifically, the Kylie track "Hand on Your Heart," a preemptive "I Can't Believe You're Dumping Me, You Douchebag" rant whose lyrics, on paper, are of the distinctly emo variety: You know it's one thing to say you love me/But another to mean it from the heart/And if you don't intend to see it through/Why did we ever start?/I wanna hear you tell me you don't want my love. Strained through Kylie's Eurodisco filter, though, it's a corny, upbeat, infectious party jam, vying for the same riot-inciting Group Empowerment Through Rejection glory "I Will Survive" exemplifies. Not one of Kylie's finer moments, alas -- remove her voice from the equation and it's straight-up Rick Astley. But José redeems the tune by stripping its forced-smile facade down to deftly fingerpicked guitar, a bit of soft percussion, and his crystal-clear, deliciously enunciated voice: Look me in the eye and tell me we are really through.

Oh, José. You're a sweet, sweet dude.

Though González' 2005 debut, Veneer, is loaded with fabulous, gentle Tropicália-flavored indie-folk originals -- he notes that most Swedish songbirds "seem to listen to Americana and alt-country," though he prefers the bossa nova rhythms he absorbed as a kid -- it's his masterful touch with cover tunes that makes him truly exemplary. He's taken on "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (a mountain many inferior artists have attempted to scale, only to fail spectacularly and suffer endless critical hoots of derision), and succeeded splendidly. He's adapted Massive Attack's mesmerizing "Teardrop" for the coffeehouse set without sacrificing its droning hypnosis. Then there's his most famous homage, a soft retelling of more recent sinister electropop act the Knife's "Heartbeats" that soundtracked one of the most profoundly affecting TV ads in recent memory: a Sony spot hawking big-screen TVs by lovingly filming a ton of brightly colored Superballs bouncing down hilly San Francisco streets, as José's disembodied voice croons forlornly in the background.

He has absolutely mastered the cover tune -- an impressive feat indeed. "For Massive Attack and Joy Division and the Knife, all three songs are my favorite songs, ever, so it's kind of trying favorite songs and seeing which one works best," José explains. "But in the case of Kylie Minogue, it was more of a challenge to put the lyrics and the melodies in a different context -- it's not one of my favorite songs at all. When I thought of doing a cover, it was when I saw the video. It's really colorful, and she's really happy and dancing around."

He sensed a crushing sadness waiting to be liberated, but don't mistake his "Hand on Your Heart" ode or anything on the fabulous Veneer for sad bastard folk. Even its maudlin moments (the self-explanatory "Lovestain," for example) have a dignified elegance, and the highlights are alarmingly rousing for a bedroom-folk record, like the galloping anthem "Remain" or the jazzy guitar-tapping coda to "Save Your Day." These are hushed, intimate songs with forceful intensity and universal appeal.

How universal? We'll find out now, on José's first US tour since Veneer's release, a short little bicoastal deal kicking off later this month in Austin for South by Southwest, official annual clearinghouse for the vaunted Indie Hype Machine that's justifiably fallen in love with him. Just don't expect any outsize gestures, howling fits, or overemoting -- the man is a monument to the power of nearly whispered restraint. "I guess I was more into howling when I was younger," he says, musing on his high school days as a hardcore kid. "After a while, I realized I really liked Chet Baker and João Gilberto, the way they use the small expressions. I don't know. Perhaps something with age to do -- when you're a teenager everything is so much life and death."

In the end, the uninitiated's best intro to González might still be that "Heartbeats" TV ad (see it at Bravia-Advert.com), probably the most reverent, stirring, and totally random use of music in a commercial since González influence Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" pimped Volkswagens. "Yeah, I thought the video was really nice -- I actually didn't realize it was real balls they used at first," he says. "It's a beautiful commercial and they've done it tasteful, without any voice-overs, so it's kind of a nice video for the music. They could've chosen a Sony artist."

Actually, no, they really couldn't have.

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