Some records make us feel more alive. It isn’t just that the music conjures something inside us when we listen to it, but rather that really good musicians reveal the depth of the emotional oceans within them. The resulting personal connection we feel with these artists adds to the vibrancy of our lives and is the reason that we mourn the deaths of people like David Bowie, Prince and Tom Petty. Even though we never knew them personally, we let them into the deepest parts of ourselves through their songs. Ray LaMontagne’s new album, Monovision, captures the singer-songwriter’s latest batch of retro acoustic rock songs. But more importantly, the album is overflowing with LaMontagne’s unadorned and earnest sincerity.
With the northeast native closing in on 50 on Monovision, his eighth studio album, the songs have a stripped-down and minimal approach. “Roll Me Momma, Roll Me” begins with delicate acoustic guitar and LaMontagne’s hauntingly breathy vocals. With each line of the song another layer of backing vocal harmony expands the sonic palate until LaMontagne hits a chord change. The sonic embellishments are then stripped away and the song swerves into rootsy acoustic Led Zeppelin territory.
The album’s first single, “We’ll Make it Through,” begins with a sparse groove comprised of acoustic guitar, harmonica and some beautifully recorded snare drum using jazz brushes. LaMontagne’s gently lilting voice weaves a powerful memory over the relatively simple chord progression. The song manages to be bittersweet and optimistic at the same time as LaMontagne sings, “Where do you go when there’s no road to follow?/ Faces look hollow, only strangers to you now/ Where do you turn when this living starts to burn/ Through layers that you learned to wrap around your heart somehow?/ I turn to you /I always do.”
LaMontagne’s tender songs borrow their vibe in equal measure from the lonely truck stop at 11:30 p.m., and the gentle dad who’s not mad at you even though you spilled your Big Gulp in his truck. There’s not a lot of musical innovation going on here, but nobody needs to innovate a better burger or provide an improvement to a ’57 Chevy. Some musical recipes endure the test of time because they always taste great.
“Strong Enough” seems to sweat the classic swamp rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival from the pores of its delicately overdriven guitar riffage and lip-curling rhythmic swagger. LaMontagne delivers the verses with a Fogerty-esque yawp, singing, “I was raised up by my mamma alone/ Worked herself into the grave/ Trying to make us a home/ She never left South Carolina.” The lyrics appear to be a kind of embellished autobiography, as LaMontagne was one of six kids raised by his single mom, but was born in Nashua, New Hampshire.
LaMontagne has certainly earned the numerous and favorable comparisons to singers as varied as Van Morrison, Nick Drake and Otis Redding. But LaMontagne’s most pronounced influence is folk giant Stephen Stills, whose song “Treetop Flyer” inspired LaMontagne to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter, or so the legend goes. I think LaMontagne’s soulful emotionality also evokes comparisons to more recent musicians like Hozier.
Monovision is like a great meal in a diner: both familiar and filling. As a songwriter, Ray LaMontagne seems to be getting even better at locating the emotional core of his music and stripping everything superfluous away. The result is an album with a visceral emotional kick to it, and a lovely way to while away the time on an overly warm summer afternoon.