The title song on Ray LaMontagne's new album, Supernova, features sunny, just-this-side-of-psychedelic production and instrumentation. It's a bright plea to a woman to join the singer on some new romantic adventures. For a guy who made his reputation as a morosely troubled, soulful crooner, it's a welcome departure.
LaMontagne is a 40-year-old singer-songwriter who has succeeded in the circuitous manner of the current music industry. He spent the early part of his career in the rural Northeast, mostly Maine and Massachusetts, woodshedding songs that were influenced by '60s soul music and '70s singer-songwriters. He has said that the Stephen Stills album Manassas was a pivotal inspiration to pursue a career in music, which is the best thing I've ever heard about Manassas. LaMontagne's chalky voice and murmured confidences, along with Los Angeles recording sessions for his early albums, put him on the West Coast media radar. Pretty soon, his meticulous melancholy was providing mood music, and his songs popped up in the background of TV shows such as Parenthood, Bones and, heaven help us, Criminal Minds. LaMontagne became a reluctant star without being coy or irritating about it.
The achievement of Supernova is that, five albums in, LaMontagne hasn't settled into a formula or a fall-back recurring mood. He avoids a lot of first-person woolgathering by populating his songs with people he wants to go places with or needs to win over — the Zoe addressed in "Supernova," a whole song called "Julia," a "Rusty James" and a "Betty Sue" in "Airwaves." He surrounds these people with reverberating electric guitars and tumbling drum figures. The result is headlong music that keeps LaMontagne chasing after his own melodies, which mitigates a flaw in his earlier recordings — a tendency to become dolorously languid.
Ray LaMontagne succeeds in part by strenuously trying to prove he doesn't think about success. He's lucky that his insistence upon living in the musical past, of avoiding anything smacking of the contemporary in favor of music he can wrestle away from baby boomers and revitalize — well, that's turned into a new path to success, as well.