There is a bridge in “Smashing,” coming late in Ray LaMontagne’s new Supernova, where many of the wonderfully produced instruments fall away and there is nothing left to focus on but his raspy voice: “I look at you, and I don’t know who I am/ I look at you, I see my life is a sham … I fooled you once and I can do it again.”
As with the best of LaMontagne’s work, his delivery is infused with passion and heartache and nostalgia, the kind of emotion that makes you feel like he can peek right into your very soul. Even as he’s straight-up telling you that he’s been fucking with you all along.
Long-time fans should appreciate that he then, just as he’s at his most dour, fires right back into a rave-up, hard-charging: “I’ll be the one who stays/ You should be here with me now.” In one couplet, he references and turns on their head two of the darkest, and most delicately pretty, works from Till the Sun Turns Black, the album that is LaMontagne’s defining moment for many of his fans — those who were hooked by Trouble, but then absolutely crushed by the immensity of Black’s exploration of the human condition.
“There’s nothing I want more/ Than to wake up on your floor,” he sang on “Can I Stay,” an expression of primal love and devotion. “Don’t lose your faith in me/ And I will try not to lose faith in you,” he sang of the implicit bargain we make with our loved ones.
And so it’s perhaps not surprising that those same fans hear lyrics like “as a child we ran through fields of clover,” paired with sunshiney guitars and keyboards in Supernova’s opening “Lavender,” and think: Fuck, what a bunch of derivative flower-child, ’60s bullshit.
Or the title track. Wow. There are shades of Smash Mouth’s “Walking on the Sun” in that flavor of pop, centered around an acoustic guitar, but with an electric guitar climbing into a glockenspiel’s plink and bouncy keyboards to go with escapist lyrics: “Gonna get out of here, and never come back.” I mean: “I want you, to be my girl”? And that video, with all the psychedelic animation, like the video feed from LaMontagne’s 17-year-old acid trips? For real?
Nor does any of this mention the fact that he’s jettisoned, for his new album and tour, the band that sounded so tight on his last tour and with whom he was so enamored that he actually released his last record, God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, as Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs. (It, like, comes up different in iTunes and stuff.)
But if you were expecting Ray to stay the course, you really haven’t been paying attention. He never worried about satisfying a fan base that fell in love with the Van Morrison-meets-Otis Redding blues-folk of Trouble. He was never tied to producer Ethan Johns, who helped him craft that sound (or Jonathan Wyman and the Jeremiah Freed boys before that, for what it’s worth). He will tell you without any hesitation that he thinks much of his old work is terrible, and letting him know that you love songs like “One Lonesome Saddle” or “I Wish I Could Change Your Mind,” from before Trouble, is basically an insult.