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Home / Articles / Music / Music feature /  Natural selection
. . . .
Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

Natural selection

José González brings songwriting down to a science

By AnnaMaria Stephens

Questions about science and religion are usually the stuff of academic journals and National Public Radio, not fodder for handsome, brooding musicians. Yet those are the prickly subjects tackled by José González, a singer-songwriter born in Sweden to Argentine parents, on his latest album, In Our Nature.

González calls himself an atheist. Before he began racking up gold records in Sweden, he was working on a doctorate degree in biochemistry at the University of Gothenburg. He ultimately picked music over science, but his evolution as a musician is nevertheless informed by his education as a scientist.

“I can appreciate things like yoga or listening to music and getting lost in the moment, which some people might consider spiritual,” González says. “But at the same time, I’ve been trained to see the difference between an explanation that’s sufficient and one that really isn’t sufficient. Rationality is the way I think.”

That said, González freely admits that science doesn’t have all the answers, either.

“I really enjoy the big questions,” he says, “the ones that have to do with ethics or free will that are more difficult to address with scientific methods and are mostly discussed within philosophy or religion.”

Much of In Our Nature deals with a core question of humanity: How do we become who we are? González shrugs off the idea of a world with inherent good and evil, made so by some omnipotent being.

“There’s a certain degree of probabilistic determinism in the way we are,” González explains. “I think it’s pretty obvious that some people, because of a different structure in their brain, have a diminished sense of what’s right or wrong. One could say that they might be inherently evil, but I think we all have a tendency to do evil things if we’re in a situation that leads us to it, unfortunately.”

A disheartening response, especially when delivered in accented science-speak—seriously, who pulls out “probabilistic determinism” in conversation?—but then González adds: “In the same way, I think we are all able to do very good things, and we do, every day, without thinking about it.”

The God Delusion by British biologist Richard Dawkins inspired much of In Our Nature’s lyrical content. The book takes a highly critical (and widely criticized) stance against intelligent design and organized religion while arguing that religion is oppressive and the world would be better off without it.

González’s song “Abram”—which refers to the biblical Abraham who nearly sacrifices his son to a demanding God before an angel grants him reprieve—is slightly more lighthearted in its theological criticism.

“The song is about questioning the blind faith to these scriptures and trying to say that in a joking way—not to be too harsh,” González clarifies.

He calls the ancient biblical stories “myths” and directly alludes to Dawkins’ book on “Abram” with the line “You’ve aided delusions and created bias in our minds.” Abram, the song says, is “sleepwalking with a delirious head.”

“There are different sorts of Christianity and different sorts of Islam,” González points out. “I’m saying either wake up or go to bed. There are many versions of Christianity and Islam that have woken up, but the fact that some still take scriptures too seriously is a problem. They’re not really reasoning. They’re throwing in the towel every time by relying on these scriptures.”

Contrary to common rationalizations for religion, González is doubtful that humankind would fall into moral anarchy were religion to disappear.

“The fact that we live close to each other as human animals has made us come up with ways to live with each other,” he offers. “We might have some moral instincts—and many people are saying that we do have that. And, of course, through culture and seeing how people treat each other and noticing what makes a good way of living, you learn how to be a moral person.”

In Our Nature may not earn a spot on the iPods of Christian Coalition members, but the album offers entertainment value beyond its intellectually stimulating lyrics. González’s arrangements build on a lushness only hinted at on his sparse 2005 debut, Veneer. Classically inflected guitar work and melodious, gentle vocals get a boost from synths, backup vocals and even the occasional handclap.

On this U.S. tour, González is taking up another cause close to his scientist’s heart—the environment. He’s teamed up with Reverb Rock, a nonprofit organization, to go green. The effort includes biodegradable catering, re-usable water bottles and a 50-cent surcharge on tickets intended to help offset carbon emissions.

“Part of it is good publicity,” González admits. “I think it’s a good idea, though. I’ve been a vegetarian for 14 years and living in Sweden, where it’s easy to be environmentally friendly. But on tour, it’s not easy at all.”

González says there’s room for questioning on subjects like global warming, as it forces scientists to find compelling evidence. But sometimes that skepticism can go too far.

“It’s usually the people who have to make the biggest sacrifices that don’t want to believe,” he says.But what about Abraham, willing to sacrifice his own offspring for his beliefs?

“I’m glad he didn’t have to do that,”  González laughs.    José González performs at 9 p.m. Monday, March 24, with Mia Doi Todd at San Diego Women’s Club, 2557 Third Ave., Bankers Hill. 619-234-0510.



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