You probably know what you’re getting from Ray LaMontagne by now. After 10 years, he’s carved a reliable name for himself in delivering serious, emotive, bluesy folk-rock, all shot through with that startling voice. And while his music has often tugged at the heartstrings, it’s never particularly wavered from that template laid down on his debut album, Trouble. If you were desperate for yet another undoubtedly talented yet overtly earnest troubadour, then LaMontagne was your man.
A four year break from recording seems to have propelled LaMontagne into a different mindset though. Installing The Black Keys‘ Dan Auerbach seems to have reinvigorated the New Hampshire native creatively, and the result is his most diverse album to date. His roots are still in classic rock, obviously (LaMontagne remains the artist least likely to explore twerking and dubstep), but the vibe this time round is very much indebted to the sunny psychedelia of the late ’60s.
Indeed, the opening track on Supernova, Lavender is so hazy and dreamy that it’s possible to mistake it for an outtake from an old Jefferson Airplane song, full of reverb heavy guitar and humming organ. It’s a strange choice for an opening track, as it’s certainly not the most memorable song on the album, but it gives an good impression of the new direction. However, it does highlight the main problem with Supernova, and that’s how different LaMontagne’s voice sounds.
For, so enthusiastic has Auerbach been to create a new sound for LaMontagne, he’s somehow managed to remove that unique growl and grit from his vocals – the very thing that made him such a compelling listen in the first place. It’s a similar jolt to hearing Bob Dylan‘s Nashville for the first time where that famously nasal whine was transformed into a winsome croon: on Lavender (and a fair few other songs on Supernova), there’s been so much overlay on the vocals that its rendered his voice weak and characterless, which is something that you could never accuse LaMontagne of before.
It’s not always the case though. Tracks like She’s The One and the terrific Julia stomp along with bluesy abandon (the latter very reminiscent of Auerbach’s own Black Keys) and LaMontagne’s voice is restored to its growly best. Airwaves is more down-tempo but quite lovely, sounding at times like early Van Morrison, especially in the singer’s raspy delivery. Pick Up A Gun sounds blissful and pastoral until the lyrics are examined – the deceptively dreamy opening line of “Walked through the field, sat on a tree” gives way to a darker hue: “You don’t love me, Pick up a gun, Shoot the TV, I want you, you don’t want me”. The contrast between the beauty of the melody and the self-lacerating nature of the lyrics is quite startling.
The second half of the record picks up the momentum, especially on the infectious title track which brings back memories of Van Morrison‘s carefree, loved-up Tupelo Honey days, although both Ojai and Smashing prove a bit too meandering to completely hold the attention. However, Drive In Movies closes the album in perfect fashion, a yearning ode to nostalgia that proves to be both poignant – especially lines like “spent all my childhood years wishing I looked like a movie star” – and heart-warming at the same time.
Curiously, the record that Supernova most brings to mind is Beck‘s recent album Morning Phase – another collection of songs that hark back to the ’60s while putting a modern spin on proceedings. Like Morning Phase, even Supernova’s failures prove an interesting listen, and when LaMontagne hits his stride, it’s an album that contains some of his best material in years.