If it weren’t for his singing voice, so full of smoke and ether, one would be hard-pressed to believe that Till the Sun Turns Black was made by the same man who recorded Trouble just two years prior to it. Ray LaMontagne takes a brave leap from the rootsy singer/songwriter material of his stellar debut album and goes nearly 180 degrees. Once more collaborating with legendary producer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns, the singer and songwriter turns in a highly textured, atmospheric, and subdued performance on his sophomore effort — and hell yes that’s a good thing. All the grit and earth in LaMontagne’s voice on Trouble, and the basic country-folk and even R&B (on the title track) has been swept out the backdoor here. This new set of songs is startling all on its own. The reliance on skeletal yet delicate string arrangements adds so much to the interior nature of these songs. LaMontagne has used the projection in both his lyrics and his voice and turned them inside out. He’s slower, more subtle, more restrained in everything he does. His lines are economical, full of space and tension, as if they were being performed in the middle of the night in a room alone. Johns‘ use of strings and keyboards paints LaMontagne’s voice and underscores his sung lines with a drama that reveals itself inside the listener. Whole comparisons to Nick Drake will be forthcoming, no doubt, but it’s only really accurate when thinking of Drake in his work with John Cale, who fully and implicitly understood the singer’s intent.
Check LaMontagne’s opener, “Be Here Now,” with the guitar finding its way toward the singer as a quartet of violins, two cellos, and a bowed bass emerge to support his voice in the void of silence Johns creates around it. Johns‘ piano fills in odd spaces. They don’t seem to add up, but they do when LaMontagne’s vocal whispers its way forward into that small swell of shadow. Even on tracks like the bluesy “You Can Bring Me Flowers,” where a full-blown horn section is used to highlight and extol LaMontagne’s tough words; there is more Tim Buckley and Tom Rush here than Redding or Stills, but it’s all LaMontagne. The jazzed up flute and funky dobro don’t sound like country, but more like country-blues at the Village Vanguard circa 1968. Again, horns come into play on “Gone Away from Me” and let his words spill out, not rattle. The whispering acoustic guitars and strings that usher in the title cut are frames for a voice to fit inside, and LaMontagne’s does for a while, he paints himself in and then shatters the frame when the gradually confessed emotion blurs the edges and stress fractures it. These songs are songs no one else can sing. LaMontagne’s sense of phrase and rhyme is idiosyncratic and never overbearing, he allows his listeners into his world, slowly, deliberately, until he can no longer bear to keep his observations and nearly overwhelming emotion to himself — as the strings swell, all he can do is begin to moan, and nearly growl, wordlessly. Till the Sun Turns Black is a giant leap forward for a songwriter who has a lot on offer already. No longer able to be lumped in with the new crop of folk practitioners or the whiny, indie singer/songwriter types who come from disaffected parts of the psyche and disaffect themselves from audiences larger than a few hundred, LaMontagne is a sophisticated pop artist who can find in simple forms something utterly engaging and communicative. This record will not sound dated in 20 years. And indeed it could have been made 20 years ago. There is nothing here that remotely echoes anything his peers might be up to. He’s in his own league. One gets the impression that as fine as this music is, he’s still feeling his way into it. We can only hope this partnership between LaMontagne and Johns will continue because we will no doubt be surprised at what comes next.
[reviewed by Thom Jurek]