Till the Sun Turns Black
ay Lamontagne occupies an odd space at the moment. His first album, Trouble, was a rootsy, stripped-back country-blues affair, which has found recent favor in the UK presumably thanks to the fearsome success of sensitive male singer songwriters over the last few years. But Lamontagne is no airbrushed, target-marketed primetime floozy. Bearded and scruffy, he’s gifted with a voice like sandpapered, sour bourbon and a knack for direct, honest songwriting.
And, unlike the floozies alluded to above, Ray Lamontagne appears to have set out, with his sophomore record, not to enhance any direct commercial appeal he may have in the Radio 2 market, but to make the music he wants to make. Perhaps needs to make.
Till The Sun Turns Black is darker—more hushed, more personal, more intimate. Within the opening bars of “Be Here Now,” a song as unlike its namesake album as you can imagine, it becomes clear that this is evolution, not consolidation, as a simple guitar strum is opened up by an astonishingly well-placed string arrangement that recalls both Robert Kirby and John Cale’s work with Nick Drake, before a distant, austere and icy cold piano line falls slowly through the left channel. When Ray’s voice finally emerges it is in simple, idiosyncratically-phrased sequence, warm and grizzled, emotion tacit rather than explicit.
This mood of restrained melancholy and finesse flows throughout most of the album. “Three More Days” is a languidly funky diversion, closer to Lambchop’s “D. Scott Parsley” than George Clinton, elevated with organ and classy, Memphis-style horns, but still earthy enough to not seem anachronistic. In fact Lambchop’s superlative Is a Woman is a reference point to what Lamontagne does here, as is Astral Weeks, perhaps Tim Buckley too. But really, this is Lamontagne’s album, his voice, his songs, his sound.
Except that producer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns, son of the legendary Glyn Johns, is the secret genius behind Lamontagne’s work, his architect and guide. As distinct as Lamontagne’s voice, phrasing, and lyrics may be, his songs are structurally simple—and elevated by the arrangements and mixing of Johns. The producer’s deployment of backing instruments, from electric blues guitar licks and occasional rattles of drums, to dobro, ukulele, and mellophone, is superlative, enhancing but never overshadowing Lamontange’s songs and voice. The occasional touches of brass across the record in particular are wonderful.
Ray Lamontagne could easily have given in and gone for the sensitive singer-songwriter audience, tried to sell a million records composed of trite platitudes and predictable choruses, but he hasn’t. What he has done is make a record that could have come from any time in the last four decades or the next four and still be pretty wonderful: an intimate, warm document of one man’s experiences of the world.