Flashback Friday: Jose Gonzalez, “Veneer”

2005 was a momentous year on my road to adulthood. Having just hit my twenties, I was six months deep into what turned out to be a three-year stint living overseas. Home was the cultural melting pot that is Brighton; a beautiful seaside town 40 minutes train ride from London, that I still consider my second home. While there I was living in a hostel, working at the local cinema and spending my free time exploring not only Britain, but as much of Europe as I could devour. I was literally living the dream.

While I was having the time of my life, the one thing I didn’t expect to do was fall in love. Her name was Liv. English born with Swiss heritage, she gave me all the feels from the moment we met. I was instantly attracted to her warm smile, but it was her intelligence, humour and caring nature that drove a harpoon into my heart. Meeting through friends during the end of 2004, things quickly escalated and before I knew it I was in my first adult relationship. I didn’t think much about it at first, but as the days turned into weeks and then months, I realised I’d fallen in love for the first time in my life.

During the early stages of our relationship, an advert began running during the previews at the cinema I worked in. The advertisement in question was for a Sony Bravia television. I’m sure it was a great piece of technology, but it wasn’t the product that stood out. The clip featured hundreds of colourful balls bouncing down the winding streets of San Francisco. Visually spectacular, it was the song sound tracking the commercial that had me hypnotised. An acoustic guitar plucked delicately as a hushed male voice crooned, “to call for hands of above, to lean on.”

A quick Internet searched revealed the song as Heartbeats, a cover of The Knife’s electronic tune by singer Jose Gonzalez. Born in Argentina but raised in Sweden, Gonzalez was relatively unheard of outside of his native Sweden until the commercial pushed the singer songwriter into the spotlight. His debut album, Veneer, originally released in Sweden two years prior, was quickly re-released throughout Europe and America, turning the unknown Gonzalez into a star.

The Internet was still in relative infancy at this time. There was no Twitter or Instagram, Facebook was only a year old, and downloading was something I had little experience with. What I did have was my trusty CD walkman and a stack of albums I lugged around on my travels. Like most music lovers at the time, I purchased a hard copy of Gonzalez’s Veneer from the local record store and quickly fell in love with the album; just around the same time I began to realise I’d fallen for Liv.

Veneer is a folk album for the indie generation that still resonates a decade later. Self-produced and recorded in his home, Gonzalez crafted a moving collection of acoustic, guitar centric tracks delving into themes of redemption, forgiveness and lost love. When listening to Veneer, names such as Nick Drake and Elliot Smith spring to mind, with Gonzalez channelling the sombre beauty and introspective lyrical content of the two masters.

Personally, Veneer was like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was my first proper introduction to folk music, a genre I was quick to take to, and one I still dabble in to this day. At the time of its release I had immersed myself in the UK indie scene, but Veneer opened my ears and musical pallet to an entirely new type of music. It led me to unearthing artists such as Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine and Band Of Horses, while also re-discovering pioneers Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and the like.

Gonzalez’s soft vocals and the intimate nature of his songs filled me with the same warm and fuzzy feeling I had when spending time with Liv. That may sound a little cheesy, but this was the first time I had ever experienced what it feels like to really love someone who you want to spend all your time with. I still remember spending cold English nights together huddled on the couch talking and drinking as Veneer played in the background. Heartbeats, a song I always interpreted as two people connecting on both a physical and spiritual level, became our song. To this day I still look back fondly on the time we spent together. The memories of Liv fill me with nostalgic joy.

Unfortunately, like many first-time relationships, this one didn’t last forever. After just over a year together, Olivia broke things off. I was devastated and did everything I could to win her back, and it worked, thanks in part to Gonzalez. During the initial break, Gonzalez played the Brighton Dome for the first time as part of his European tour. I attended with a couple of friends while Olivia went with her sisters. We crossed paths but didn’t speak, but began texting after the show. Before you know it we were back together. We spent the next year on and off before I moved back to Australia, and even then we still kept in touch. I even helped pay for her to fly out and visit for two weeks in the summer of 2006, which was both a blessing and a curse. Getting to spend two weeks travelling Australia with Olivia was an amazing experience, but it also made me realise we were never going to work as a couple, and I broke things off once she returned home.

With the split definitive, I fell back into reminiscing about our time together. Veneer was once again in high rotation, but I felt entirely different listening to it. What was a shared experience about love was now my version of a break-up album. The feelings of joy and happiness once associated with this album were transformed into heartbreak and loneliness.

I soon found new meaning in Gonzalez’s lyrics. Heartbeats, the song that had represented the love and intimacy of our relationship, now became a song about connecting with someone and realising it could never last. Stay In The Shade, a song Gonzalez has stated was inspired by Nick Drake, was literally telling me “love moves on / life goes on.” Lovestain, a scant lyrical ballad repeats the refrain, “you left a lovestain on my heart / and you left a bloodstain on the ground / but blood comes off easily.” Just like Olivia’s love had left a mark on my heart that would always be there, so too would it gradually fade as I moved on and fell in love again.

Looking back on the experience, I have nothing but fond memories of our relationship. I might not have always been the best boyfriend, but the time I spent with Olivia taught me so much about what it’s like being in a loving, adult relationship and the responsibilities that come with this. I firmly believe Olivia helped me become a better person in all aspects of my life, contributing to my transition from a boy into a grown man.

Over a decade later and I still listen to Veneer on a regular basis. The album represents an important step in my life, encompassing moments of joy and sadness that fill me with a sense of nostalgic enlightenment. Veneer helped me deal with falling in and out of love and realising life goes on despite your relationship failures, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.