I had been looking forward to this release for a while. Ray LaMontagne has yet to make an album that I haven’t enjoyed and his previous releases have ranged from very good to brilliant, with those very special moments of soul-destroying emotion which make him such an essential artist. Learning that he was making his fifth album with Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) was a tantalising prospect, especially as it was very difficult, if nigh impossible, to second-guess what that collaboration was going to produce. As it turns out, the end result sounds a little underwhelming at first as, while this album definitely sounds rather beautiful, many of Ray’s songs, given such a glossy sheen, lack a certain emotive quality that his music has overflown with before. That’s not to say this is a bad album and, when you get to know the material a little more and are able alter your perception, it’s much more than merely listenable and is, in fact, a rather delightful experience, but compared with earlier LaMontagne albums (especially the first and second), it just seems a little… well, light and infeasibly happy. Still, to give “Supernova” a fair hearing, you really need to disregard what you know about Ray LaMontagne’s career so far and attempt to listen with a fresh pair of ears. Not easy, I know, but taking this album on its own merits instead of comparing it with his previous work is the best way to actually enjoy it.
So, if you are able to suspend your expectations, there are more than a handful of songs to really love here and, pleasingly, not a single duff track. Most strikingly, much of the album is drenched in summery, west coast harmonies and oodles of reverb and album opener “Lavender”, with echoes of The Zombies’ “Time Of The Season”, shimmers, caresses and simply sounds lovely, even if Ray’s voice gets lost in the mix a little. The laid back “Airwaves” has a slight Hawaiian feel to it and would be the perfect soundtrack to listen to whilst lying on a sun-drenched beach, watching the waves lap at the shore. The big, full sound of “She’s The One” with Ray near-growling over the top is one of the choice tracks here and one of those hook-laden songs that buries itself deep in your brain once you hear it a couple of times. The same can be said about “Julia”, a catchy, upbeat number that has almost has a glam-rock thumping drum beat and guitar riff which, together with a brief interlude between verses that sounds a little like the Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday” adds up to a pretty much irresistible cut.
The title track, “Supernova”, is a breezy, organ laden gem that simply makes me smile and the near-spoken verse even has a hint of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ “Here Comes My Girl” whilst the bridge evokes memories of Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band, which can never be a bad thing. “Smashing” is a gently psychedelic beauty and the powerful chorus sees Ray delivering the line “I’ll be the one who stays…” with powerful conviction. It is essential that the listener doesn’t write this album off straight away because of initial impressions. Final track, “Drive-In Movies” is a pleasing and likeable country-rock romp that just screams “feel-good”. All-in-all, this is a pretty fine album and I expect that it will win many sceptics around, given a few plays and an open mind. Producer Auerbach has certainly given Ray’s material a different feel, but the talented band of musicians assembled here (including Auerbach on guitar) ensure there won’t be many albums this year that sound quite as pleasing to the ear as this one. It may not be what you were expecting and it may not be exactly what you want, given the music he has produced in the past, but “Supernova” has enough shining moments on it to make it a more than worthy addition to Ray LaMontagne’s impressive catalogue.
Ray LaMontagne’s “Supernova” is out now on RCA Records.
Andy Sweeney, 11th May, 2014.