Ray LaMontagne's Trouble was probably as good as it gets for a debut recording. Critically acclaimed, healthy sales and a burgeoning onstage reputation gave LaMontagne's late begun career the kind of kick start most artists only dream about. It overflowed with the hushed immediacy of brooding, lilting and occasionally rollicking backwoods melodies; LaMontagne's distinctive, reedy voice took us on a gently resonant trip through life, love and mortality.
The flashlight casting a dim glow on the cover of Till the Sun Turns Black is instructive in uncovering LaMontagne's vision for his follow up recording. The presentation is all about darkness, the artist's Christ-like visage at once troubled and vulnerable, searching the murky place he finds himself in for light. It's puzzling, eerie and intriguing. Is the artist a genuine seeker, even a visionary, or is it all a carefully constructed artifice, a manufactured, overwrought persona dispensing world-weary homilies?
As with Trouble, producer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns is prominent in shaping and sharpening LaMontagne's beautiful contemplations. So much so that this could reasonably be regarded as a duo recording. The opening track, "Be Here Now," is replete with Johns' trademark wash of piano, synths and strings shimmering and swooping behind the gentle vocal. "Don't let your soul get lonely child. It's only time, it will go by," is only one of many cautions and questions LaMontagne poses throughout the album.
On "Three More Days" Johns' choppy shuffle pushes the tempo into Dan Penn, southern fried territory, all swinging piano and pumping horns. Its bold proclaimer is "Gonna bring it all home," then retreats into the vulnerable, hesitant world of the sublime "Can I Stay". As a string quartet gently sways, LaMontagne whispers pleas for comfort and shelter. This is a beautiful love song, as tender as it is ethereal.
Can I stay here with you through the night time
Comparisons to the backwoods charms of The Band arise on "Gone Away From Me," the muted horns and waltz time recalling the timeless "Rocking Chair." "Lesson Learned" is a bleak tale of love, lust, and desperation. Like Lejos and Mary in "Narrow Escape," on Trouble, the lovers seek solace, but find only unrest. After the sparse instrumental interlude of "Truly, Madly, Deeply," "Till The Sun Turns Black" finds LaMontagne searching, probing, and wondering.
Can you see the wise man simply living loving quietly
As the song flows seamlessly into "Within You," the strings swell, the percussion pushes and the lovely muted horns take us on a stately march that is almost triumphant. After so much questioning, LaMonagne lays down his vision. "War is not the answer. The answer is within you," he proclaims. Over and over to the fade.
Art or artifice? I truly don't know. But Ray LaMontagne's Till The Sun Turns Blackis a moving, engaging and often inspiring excursion into the world of country soul. Perhaps the answer is within each of us. • Michael Hansen