Soul and depth. Most albums, as is evidenced by the Billboard charts, can be successful without these two elements, but success isn’t everything. Particular albums by artists such as Van Morrison and Nick Drake may not have gone platinum, but they have the gifts of longevity and reverence. It’s no fluke or stretch that Ray LaMontagne has been compared with the aforementioned artists. His first album, Trouble, found him belting out raspy tunes in a folk / country hybrid vein, earning him critical praise and a cult following of adult contemporary listeners. While that debut was more than solid, LaMontagne wanted something more with its follow-up. Songs had to have meaning. In other words, they had to have soul and depth. Now, with the release of sophomore album, Till the Sun Turns Black, Ray LaMontagne proves that he possesses those two magical qualities necessary to the relevance of any singer / songwriter.
As Ray LaMontagne was performing his new songs in a live format to gauge reaction, he found that most fans were asking the New Hampshire native and later nomad if he was tired. His newer songs, more intimate and hushed, left his followers, thirsty for that rough growl, a bit confused. That’s the problem with expectation; it can ruin something truly incredible. Opener “Be Here Now,” a possible reference to the Ram Dass title, is the perfect example of that newfound intimacy and gravitas. It, like most of the songs on Till the Sun Turns Black, consists mostly of guitar and delicate string accompaniment. LaMontagne has bared himself in a way he either didn’t, or couldn’t, on Trouble. And since LaMontagne has been known to be an intensely private person, shunning interviews and the revelation of anything personal, Till the Sun Turns Black now provides us with the closest thing to actual windows into LaMontagne’s soul. “Empty” is the second song, and one which finds our reluctant guitar hero questioning his own feelings of connection. “Barfly” is sure to gain even more comparisons to Nick Drake, thanks to the subtle background vocals of Rachel Yamagata and the Hammond organ of producer Ethan Johns.
“Three More Days” is, I’m sure, destined for repeated radio airplay due to its likeness to the songs on the debut, finding Ray in his earlier gruff habitat. There is a difference, however, in that LaMontagne finds himself in true Memphis soul territory, complete with early Van Morrison-era horns and a big Otis Redding frenetic build-up at the close. “Three More Days” also reminds me of Dusty Springfield and her “Son of a Preacher Man” highlights. “Can I Stay” slows things back down once again, causing me to make a mental connection with Damien Rice. If Rice, an Irishman, were more influenced by Paul McCartney and Van Morrison instead of Americans Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, this song would be the result. It’s almost as if each artist were born in the wrong place and the wrong time. Yet fans of both know this isn’t true. As Thom Yorke said, everything in its right place. I’m sure Ray would agree. “You Can Bring Me Flowers,” not an actual answer to Barbra Streisand, has LaMontagne finding inspiration from his home country, with a blues and soul mix. “Gone Away From Me,” another incredibly sad tune, belied by Ethan Johns’ ukulele strumming, is destined for placement on soundtracks, inevitably with the characters moving in slow motion, just before a fade to black or a roll of credits.
Both “Lesson Learned” and “Truly, Madly, Deeply” find LaMontagne more than ever on his own, literally and figuratively. The former consists of his own overlapped guitar lines and some of his hardest hitting and most brutal lyrics on the album. The latter replaces one of the guitars with an organ, and makes for a brief and subtle instrumental track. The title track and closer “Within You” wrap up the album just how it started, reflective and a little sad. The latter again finds comparison in Damien Rice, specifically his song “Cold Water,” an intensely spare and powerful folk anthem sing-along, building to a strong finish, while also searching for hope amongst despair. And while Till the Sun Turns Black may not be a theme album in the strictest sense of the term, it does somewhat follow a life cycle, that of a man questioning aspects of his experience whether in relationships or in living life itself.
Ray LaMontagne might have earned himself a cult following with his debut, and even more so by covering Gnarls Barkley’s ever present radio hit “Crazy,” his new album will find its title pulling double duty, also acting as a description of his own relevance. Soul and depth. Some of the best albums of this year possessed them, including Cat Power, Neko Case, Josh Ritter and Scott Walker, and now Ray LaMontagne can be added to that esteemed list. Till the Sun Turns Black is one of the best albums of the year, and a great leap for an already gifted artist.