After Ray LaMontagne released the first singles off of his fifth record, "Supernova," a number of comments appeared on Facebook and YouTube from listeners making statements like "This is way too mainstream," or "This isn't the Ray I know." As fans, we have expectations from the artists we love the most, and it is only natural that we hope those expectations are met. But does it entitle us to question how artists express themselves? What exactly are we defining as mainstream, and if something does classify as mainstream, does that automatically make it a negative?
It has been six years since LaMontagne's last solo effort, "Gossip In The Grain," and certainly he has changed as a person and garnered new musical interests in those years. Shouldn't we favor exploring new sounds over stagnancy? Shouldn't we encourage an artist like himself to take risks? Isn't it premature to make conclusions based on a few songs and a handful of listens?
“There’s always people that … you know, I remember when 'Till The Sun Turns Black' came out," LaMontagne said. "Everyone had an opinion about that because it was different than ‘Trouble.' And then ‘Gossip In The Grain’ came out and people had opinions about that because it was different than ‘Till The Sun Turns Black.’ And so on. It always happens, and it is expected. But if someone doesn’t like the sound or song then that just means that the song isn’t for them. That’s all it means. It’s no reflection on me. I’m doing what I always do, and if someone doesn’t like it, it means they aren’t going to make that song their own. But it is going to connect with someone, and they certainly connect with me."
Listening through "Supernova," there's no denying that this album is LaMontagne's greatest departure from the sound he has cultivated over the past ten years. While his foundation in folk remains strong, upbeat pillars of pop and psychedelic rock have been erected overtop. Distorted riffs, synths and keyboards often relieve acoustic guitar, giving LaMontagne's rustic hue a grittier edge. While Dan Auerbach's presence in the studio has made itself known, it largely came down to LaMontagne finding the tones that piqued his curiosity.
"It’s just a matter of waiting for melodies to come into your head that make you pick up the guitar," LaMontagne said. "You have to sift through them in your head, and say, 'Well, this one sounds interesting to me. This other one isn’t demanding my attention, but this one is. Why is that?’ So you investigate it. You have to follow it and whip it into shape. It’s just a process of revealing. These things reveal themselves, and either it makes you pick up your guitar and really work on trying to define it or it doesn’t.
“It wasn’t until I wrote ‘Supernova’ that I thought, 'Okay, this is interesting to me.’ To me that song has that conciseness about it, it has that certain vocal delivery that was necessary, phrasing that caught my attention. Then ‘Lavender’ happened, and I really thought this all could be going somewhere neat. The songs dictate themselves. I think if you listen back to 'Gossip in the Grain,’ songs like ‘Meg White’ and 'I Still Care For You' have a kind of hint. They have that stuff that I’ve always loved, music from the early to mid-‘60s rock, and it’s just something that I haven’t fully explored yet. I think this record is more me … the most pure me record I’ve ever done. It came so naturally. Once I tapped in on this certain palette of sonic colors, it all happened very quickly with this sense of playfulness and just having fun in the studio.”
While songs like "Meg White" and "I Still Care For You" from 2008's "Gossip In The Grain" hinted at change, "Supernova" is a record that takes a significant number of spins to really grasp onto, especially for those who have been with him from the start. He admitted that finding the right sound was like a game of hide and seek for some time, and that when it comes to the lyrical message, he's "still figuring that out." But for those who stick around, there is both familiarity and greater depth to be gained in LaMontagne's most recent addition to his catalogue.
“I think it’s a really strong batch of tunes, and I know that all of us in the studio felt that way," LaMontagne said. "When you’re sitting in the room with some of the best musicians there are out there, and everyone’s smiling and talking about it saying, 'This is fucking great!' then you know it’s great. There’s no competition to it, you just put your stuff out there and hopefully the audience comes to it. I think more people will come to the game than leave it."