It was Stephen Stills‘ all-American ‘Treetop Flyer’ that inspired Ray LaMontagne to jack in the day job and become a full-time musician, and his debut record Trouble validated this significant influence when it was released in 2004. Early follow-up records also remained pretty faithful to the Americana genre but he’s recently showed signs that he’s subtly moving away from the signature roots-y material that perhaps helped to define him. The Dan Auerbach-produced Supernova possessed a swashbuckling electricity, but there was also a more cosmopolitan approach stylistically that provided an unpredictability to proceedings. The Jim James-produced Ouroberos married this approach with a more psychedelic character, and new record Part of the Light seems to consist of the ingredients from all these different subtle transformations with variable degrees of success.
Opening track ‘To the Sea’ is a case in point. Its acoustic intro bears all the Americana hallmarks you might expect from an earlier record but it subtly shifts key and LaMontagne’s upbeat vocals establish a jaunty English folk quality to proceedings redolent of the late Nick Drake. This unification of whimsical English folk and multi-textured Americana is all presented through a playful psychedelic haze that you may think establishes the tone of the whole record, yet this turns out to be deceptive because ‘Paper Man’ is a more orthodox 70s art-rock song.
LaMontagne’s distinctive vocals have always been a feature of all his albums but this record seems to be more ambitious in this regard; on ‘Part of the Light’, and the dreamy ‘It’s Always Been You’, the gravelly tones are replaced with a layered sotto voce approach which are enhanced by gentle harmonies, forcing a self-inflicted reminder that you’re listening to a Ray LaMontagne album. This change in tone is actually very welcome and the softer sonics soothe and caress attentively.
As the album progresses, it becomes more and more debatable what exactly Ray LaMontagne has been listening to during the development of Part of the Light. Self-producing the record seems to have resulted in a kind of ‘fuck it’ approach as styles, sounds and genres come and go. ‘Let’s Make it Last’ bears a slow-motion affinity with The Beatles before we lurch unexpectedly towards the dirty Led Zeppelin riff on ‘As Black as Blood is Blue’, which in turn is replaced by the gentle acoustic tones and soaring soulfulness of ‘Such a Simple Thing’. Schizophrenic by design perhaps, ultimately this seems to be a record full of darkness and light. Each song’s distinctive aura seems to be nullified by the track which follows. What sounds like a freewheelin’ 60s album is smothered by a darker, more unpredictable 70s one and this temperamental approach can be frustrating at times, particularly on the slightly too derivative Pink Floyd-esque closer ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’. How successful this volatile union is will probably only really emerge after multiple listens. Until then, it is an elegant and curious enigma.
PART OF THE LIGHT IS OUT THIS FRIDAY (17/5). PRE-ORDER HERE: