Sunday, March 6, 2016

Ray LaMontagne - Supernova

Ray LaMontagne has somehow managed to make competing arguments for himself as both the luckiest and the least fortunate man in show business. On one hand, his 2004 debut album, Trouble, has proven to have legs in a way that I don’t think anyone expected back in the day. Sure, the record was always critically acclaimed, but did anyone think that the title track was going to be performed multiple times on American Idol? In the show’s heyday, no less? And that’s without even talking about those adorable commercials with the dog that can’t find a secure place to bury his bone. Add “Jolene,” which served as the powerful closing credits song for Ben Affleck’s 2010 drama The Town, and “Hold You In My Arms,” which landed on at least a couple TV shows, and Trouble has turned out to be a songbook classic in a way that very few other albums from the last decade have.

On the other hand, though, Trouble was such a stellar debut that LaMontagne has pretty much doomed himself to languish in the purgatory of the sophomore slump for the rest of time. Not that any of his other albums have been bad: 2006’s Till The Sun Turns Black took on a darker, more dreamlike atmosphere than its predecessor, while 2008’s Gossip in the Grain was mostly an enjoyable retread of Trouble aside from “You Are The Best Thing,” the soulful rave-up that began the collection and hinted at a new direction that never came. As for 2010’s God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, it was a pleasant soft folk-rock album with plenty of enjoyable songs (particularly the last three), but sounded almost like the kind of a record an aged classic rocker would release three decades after his glory days. Only four albums and six years on from Trouble, LaMontagne sounded like he was ready to spend the rest of his career making riskless albums, and while the music was fine, that revelation was a bit of a heartbreaker.

All of this makes it that much more surprising that LaMontagne’s fifth full-length studio album, appropriately called Supernova, explodes the expectations most of us have had for the sensitive singer songwriter in virtually every way. Here, finally, is a departure, a new direction for an artist whose first album will celebrate its 10th birthday this fall. Instead of continuing along in the same acoustic folk vibe of his past few albums, Supernova finds LaMontagne plumbing the depths of 1960s British Invasion-era psychedelic rock. It’s an interesting change of pace for a guy whose previous high points came mostly with raw production and sparse, acoustic guitar accompaniment. This time, the arrangements are lush, swooning, and all-encompassing things, with LaMontagne’s acoustic strums often drowned out by snarling, moody electric guitars.

Credit both changes to Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who provides production and electric guitar on all of these songs. Sometimes, Auerbach’s contributions are on the subtler side, as with opener “Lavender,” a foot-tapping groover loaded with distant backing vocals, elements of vocal percussion, and a persistent kick-drum beat. The peak of the tune is a guitar solo, slithering and sliding through the layers of reverb and dusty desert sand, and it’s a welcome change of pace for LaMontagne’s sound. The song itself is a meandering composition, never really settling on a core melody, but offering plenty of lovely sounds throughout, from Auerbach’s solo to the untethered acoustic guitar chords that strike through the proceedings every once in awhile. The lyrics and vocals also just generally take a backseat here, though, a trend that proves to be the rule rather than the exception throughout the record, and one that more or less derails LaMontagne's sonic new direction.

Proof of that fact can be found on first single “Airwaves,” an intriguing piece of lazy folk-pop that uses a whispered refrain rather than a melodic hook as its lynchpin. The decision is both sultry and eerie in the context of the song, and it posits “Airwaves” as an interesting choice of single to introduce this new Ray LaMontagne to the world. After all, what sold LaMontagne to audiences initially was his vocal prowess on songs like “Trouble,” or his lyrical grace on masterworks like “Jolene.” Both elements are subtracted here, but surprisingly, it’s the latter that has the greater impact on the success of the song.

Sure, “Airwaves” is pretty much nothing vocally, but it still manages to be catchy thanks to it’s rhythmic touch. The lyrics, meanwhile, are naval gazing fare that fall well below what LaMontagne is capable of writing. You get the feeling instantly that “Airwaves” is meant to be a SoCal road trip song, with an early verse reading, “Rolling out of east L.A./Making our way to Santa Fe/Man, sure do look pretty, she said/Feels so good to get myself out of the city.” The problem is that the city name-dropping here feels more like a nonsensical Red Hot Chili Peppers geography lesson (see “Around the World” or “Dani California”) than it does like a song where the places actually serve the narrative or poetic meaning. That’s in sharp contrast to “Jolene,” where the wandering lyrical motifs (“Cocaine flame in my bloodstream/Sold my coat when I hit Spokane” and “Been so long since I seen your face or felt a part of this human race/I’ve been living out of this here suitcase for way too long”) were chilling and evocative because they felt so personal and specific. On “Airwaves,” it feels like the girl getting out of the city could be anyone, and that lack of lyrical ballast results in the song – and the record – losing the gravity that might have somehow tied it to the human condition.

Ultimately, that’s precisely the problem with Supernova. There’s nothing here to relate to, or even to latch on to in any way. The album becomes an exercise in style over substance as it goes, spending all of its attention on trying to cultivate this psychedelic Beatles-esque atmosphere, but forgetting that memorable lyrical or melodic moments are what would make that atmosphere worth something. Everything about the core songwriting reeks of boilerplate, from the hooks (or lack thereof) to the song titles themselves: generic, non-specific names like “Supernova,” “She’s the One,” and “Smashing.” LaMontagne’s weightless, unmistakable vocals are still here to lift the songs into a higher place, but they’re a terrible match with Auerbach’s dense, unwieldy, and overbearing production. A similar tower of studio bullshit derailed the most recent Black Keys album, though there it was all because of Danger Mouse. Here, Auerbach seems to be learning all of the wrong production tenants from his frequent collaborator, and the result is an album whose production levels would suffocate the songs if there were anything much to strangle

Instead, Supernova is an album filled with rough sketch song ideas blown up to near-comical levels of maximalism. It all sounds pretty enough, but it’s empty and dull and forgettable in the worst ways. LaMontagne’s last couple albums may not have been terribly distinctive, but they were at least all enjoyable. Supernova, on the other hand, is a massive, aggressively mediocre bore. I respect LaMontagne for going in a new direction, but if this is what that direction sounds like, then I hope it’s a temporary detour.

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