Fade to Black
All roads lead back to Ray LaMontagne
Ray LaMontagne is a pretty funny guy. But it’s a subtle humor. Take the 2003 show at the Center for Cultural Exchange (may it RIP), where he gave the crowd a big explanation about how he was working on a tune for Sesame Street.
Would we like to hear it? God, yes, the 75 people in attendance implored. Already he could do virtually no wrong. So, he started to play, reading the lyrics from a legal pad next to him.
“I hate,” he sang, “my fucking job.”
If we were eating out of his hand after a song or two, at this point we probably would have donated to his kids’ college fund.
Which is what LaMontagne’s well on his way to making an afterthought as he releases his second RCA album, following sales of 300,000 copies of his Trouble and more than two straight years of touring the world. Nose to the grindstone, he’s thousands of miles from his wife and family as he tries to make his nut.
If only, after hearing Till the Sun Turns Black, it didn’t seem so much like he hated his fucking job.
A brilliant and moving disc, this new album is charged with a pathos that can’t be an act. LaMontagne is an old soul ill-fit for our modern world, just a few years removed from living off the grid, when the demands of touring forced his family to move closer to society and things like cable television. Planes, security, Guster’s hippy fans, Japanese society—these are the things that leave LaMontagne wondering: “Will I always feel this way / So empty and so estranged?”
That’s the chorus from “Empty,” the album’s second track and a wonderfully shuffling sad cowboy tune (and the only previously released track, having shown up on last year’s Live From Bonnaroo EP). A cello and violin open (there are strings on most every song here, thanks to the production of LaMontagne’s right-hand man, Ethan Johns), then come in a perfectly paired rhythm section of brushed drums and walking stand-up bass. The lyrics are the kind of writing that has made LaMontagne a star, paired with his delivery, an aching exhalation like he’s ripping his chest open in front of you. It feels like gospel, and I don’t mean the musical genre: “I looked my demons in the eyes, said do your best, destroy me / I’ve been to hell and back so many times I must admit you kind of bore me / There’s a lot of ways to kill a man / There’s a lot of ways to die … There’s a lot of things I don’t understand / Why so many people lie.”
Is he a folk-slinging Cobain? Destined to only get more depressed and disappointed by the prospect of getting everything he every wanted?
With LaMontagne, it’s a lot simpler than the pressures of oncoming fame. Rather, I think he’s just homesick, writing songs on the road that come from emotions that would exist even if every flight was first class and every security check came with a red carpet.
The album’s single, “Three More Days,” couldn’t be simpler. The only real rocker here, it’s a Motown send-up, late-career Ray Charles (his namesake), full of big horns putting LaMontagne forward as bandleader and Southern rock guitar that should remind you of last album’s “How Come.”
And the sentiment is just as simple. “Three more days, girl you know I’ll be comin’ home to you darlin,’” LaMontagne emotes at his most impassioned. He’s contrite – “I know it’s wrong to be so far from home” – but he’s practical: “I just gotta get this good job done / So I can bring it on home to you.”
Elsewhere, things are not so cut and dry. The production, Johns playing many of the instruments, often seems unnecessary, like the music that intrudes into movies, telling you how you’re supposed to feel when it ought to be obvious. “Can I Stay,” with a bit of demo-like hiss, is heartbreaking on its own, LaMontange imploring, “Can I stay here with you till the morning / There’s nothing I’d like more than to wake up on your floor.” But his naked emotion is dressed up in descending string progressions.
Similarly, the ukelele (or some other odd-sounding deviation on a guitar) in “Gone Away From Me” makes what could be a distinctive rhythm sound exactly like Hans Zimmer’s instrumental theme to True Romance (full disclosure: My wife called that).
It’s hard not to wonder whether Johns hasn’t become more LaMontagne band member than producer, in a way forsaking the producer’s role of making hard decisions about when too much is just too much. Ray’s a charismatic guy. He wouldn’t be the first to try to make him happy.
Can that be done? You wouldn’t know it from LaMontagne’s first two albums. And though I’m not here to say it’s his job to blow sunshine up your ass, it’s hard not to feel like this album is, yes, blacker than the first. Trouble’s “Hannah,” “Jolene,” and “Shelter” somehow had a hope that’s largely missing here. The title track alone, where LaMontagne picks apart our social structure and finds even the wise man’s lot ultimately hopeless, should be enough to get you reaching for the whiskey.
Still, there is the album’s finisher, “Within You,” that acts as an uplifting coda in the way that “Her Majesty” rejects the irony and bombast of Abbey Road. Built on a gentle strum, with a tambourine for rhythm, LaMontange meditates on a single couplet for about five minutes. “War is not the answer,” he breathes, his vocals as high as Iron & Wine, “The answer is within you.”
Is this politics, or is this a simple acknowledgement that sometimes you just have to take life as it comes? Well, as Wilco sang, when “it’s a war on war / You’re gonna lose.” And I think LaMontagne would agree that “you have to learn how to die.”