'Trouble', Ray LaMontagne's acclaimed 2004 RCA Records debut, quietly sold over 250,000 copies, the grassroots result of listeners throughout the world hearing the New Hampshire-born singer and songwriter and telling others about him. Here was a passionate new voice — rough and silken, panoramic and local.
Yet for his follow-up album LaMontagne demanded of himself a recording that did not revisit the same ground on which he had premiered with such uncommon command. "I just wanted to have something different than a collection of songs," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that, I just didn't want to do it again."
More was involved than avoiding repetition, though. LaMontagne does not consider himself an entertainer; he writes, records, and performs his music and hopes that, in so doing, sheer passion and music will triumph. "I always just express myself," he says. "I just kind of let them go, my songs. There are songwriters and musicians out there who are entertainers. They have so much fun. I envy that sometimes. They're having such a great time."
For LaMontagne, songwriting does not exist as a task that one completes irrespective of whatever else goes on in the life of the songwriter: Instead, the work takes shape and flight as the result of what happens to the songwriter. "Songs come from different places," LaMontagne says. "Some are like exercises. They could be very good songs. But others come from more purely emotional places."
It was that last kind of song that compelled LaMontagne when he began to assemble what has emerged as 'Till the Sun Turns Black', his new album. Before beginning sessions at upstate New York's Allaire Studios, working again with the noted producer and musician Ethan Johns, LaMontagne examined the songs he had written, songs that his follow-up might contain. Many were effective, fluent, and fine; others seemed something more than any of those things to LaMontagne; these were songs that, as he puts it, "ate away" at him.
Those were the songs LaMontagne chose. "Some of the others were fun to write, and play live sometimes," he says. "But when it came time to record, they didn't mean anything to me. I set those songs aside. I always, always end up recording the songs that I feel are important for me to work through."
On the eleven songs that comprise 'Till the Sun Turns Black,' all of this is audible — the demand for meaningfulness, the requirement of emotional relevancy, the struggle of working through material in the form of songs that refuse, until properly recorded, to leave the artist alone. The music, horn-warmed soul classicism that turns decisively yet inevitably into broader expanses of sound, extends with heart and skill the vintage U.S R&B and Americana folk-country that made LaMontagne famous on 'Trouble'. Throughout the cycle, LaMontagne's voice — battered, bitter and beseiged, devastated and uncomprehending — remains central and alive, even when singing lines such as "There are a lot of ways to kill a man/There are a lot of ways to die."
"It's definitely not 'Trouble, Part 2'," LaMontagne says. "People want to put you in a category, I've found. Toward the end of my tour last year — I toured for two years straight — I kept getting questions like 'Are you tired?' It seemed that if I wasn't screaming my brains out, something might be wrong with me. But it's like this: the voice is just an instrument. Every song asks to be sung in a different way. If I were to sing every song in a classic soul style, none of these songs on this record would be effective. I've tried to follow the songs."
LaMontagne considered closely the structure of his song cycle. The piece opens with the beautiful, occasionally harrowing orchestrations of "Be Here Now,' which LaMontagne regards as a statement of how cruelly focus can vanish. "We are a distracted people," LaMontagne says. "it can be very difficult to remain engaged in life, to interact with other human beings. It's hard, and that's the challenge, really, to remain engaged when nobody can understand each other."
The cycle ends with the title song, which decries the absence of myth in the U.S. today. "Our culture is so naked," LaMontagne says, "I feel like we don't have events to fall back on. So many times, I fall into things, and I feel like I wish I had somebody — or a story — to fall back on that would get me through this, that would explain this. I wonder what we will leave behind. It's just the blink of an eye and we're gone. What will people dig up? Works of art? Or Styrofoam cups?"
Between these poles are songs that address how particular people deal with each other in particular personal circumstances, sometimes getting it relatively right, other times maiming one another. These songs, often breathtaking in their unyielding psychological straightforwardness, include the tender first single "Can I Stay" and "Empty," where a man wonders if he will always feel "estranged," and "Barfly," anchored by a bass background reminiscent of Lou Reed music. Some songs, such as "Three More Days" and "You Can Bring Me Flowers," retrieve the forms of vintage soul; others, such as "Gone Away from Me" and "Lesson Learned," echo traditional American folk music and Stephen Foster. The record ends on "Within You," a musical and emotional summary of all that has come before, wherein LaMontagne maintains that "The answer is within you."
"Its so easy to get caught up in your own experiences," LaMontagne says. "They can seem so important. But there are billions and billions of other experiences going on. I guess the album is just me trying to look at things beyond myself, wondering what it is to be alive and what it's all about. I do get into my own experiences — I put the blinders on, in that sense, just dealing with my own life events. But then I try to open the blinders back up again, at the end."
'Till the Sun Turns Black' is the song cycle of a man determined to convey his journey from blue-collar everyman to supremely nuanced musician who bares his soul, in the studio and onstage, to strangers. For Ray LaMontagne, it's the only course to take. "That's why we're here," he says, "to express ourselves."