In the musical landscape that is my iPod catalog and album collection, the setting is often a bleak and desolate one filled with what I lovingly refer to as “slit your wrists” numbers that encapsulate our angst-filled life and times. It’s funny that I unconsciously lean toward artists who consistently seem to be on the verge of the proverbial “throwing in the towel” since I, myself, tend to be a genuinely happy person. However, my music is often qualified by scorned lovers, heartache, and loneliness. I guess I’d rather have the barren, treeless truth than fluffy, cotton candy mountains dotting my scenery.
In the midst of our cynical world, it’s no wonder that writing a good love song is a lost art. Not many musicians are currently riding the Love Train. Instead, the Break-Up Express is jammed full of passengers. There are approximately a bajillion songs released in this decade suitable for repeat play at a pity party, but I struggle to find the appropriate accompanying tunes for when – wonder of wonders – all is right in the relationship department.
But soft! (That’s a romantic way of saying: Wait!) Enter Ray LaMontagne.
I had a chance encounter with LaMontagne when he sang the title song of his 2004 album debut, Trouble, late one night on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. I immediately stopped channel surfing and paid attention. There was this guy, solo onstage with only a guitar in hand, virtually baring his soul for a live NBC audience. As he unabashedly bellowed, “I’ve been saved by a woman, she won’t let me go,” followed by a series of emphatic “I love hers” at the end of the song, I considered my heartstrings officially tugged. Such raw, loving emotion is hard to come by these days.
LaMontagne’s style is refreshing because he can articulate the subtleties of true love without breaching the boundaries of syrupy, overwrought lyrics. This is a signature move for LaMontagne, as he’s recorded a plethora of songs that are fantastic examples of modern day love songs. Let’s face it: sometimes you want channel your inner Roberta Flack and set the night to music. “Shelter” and “Hold You in My Arms” off Trouble and “Can I Stay” off Till the Sun Turns Black are perfect in that capacity.
LaMontagne’s sound incorporates a variety of influences including blue collar folk and Stax’s sweet soul. Amidst the oft-used piano, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and even the violin, LaMontagne’s husky voice is the star instrument that sets him apart from his contemporaries. His voice communicates that its owner feels emotions deeply and thoroughly, maybe more so than the average Joe and Josephine.
LaMontagne recently released his third studio album, Gossip in the Grain, and the first single off the album, “You Are the Best Thing,” is a more direct nod to the soul genre (well known itself for pontifications on the topic of love) he’s flirted with in the past, complete with an up tempo and horns backing. Coupled with “Three More Days,” Mr. Otis Redding of Stax fame would surely be proud. In fact, while on LaMontagne’s tour to support Till the Sun Turns Black, he covered “To Love Somebody,” originally written by two of the Brothers Gibb for Redding to record before he passed away. LaMontagne evokes that same sense of passion and unfettered love glorified in so much of soul music.
Sure, LaMontagne has his moments of darkness and pain, just like everyone else. Relationships decompose and regrets run amuck in LaMontagne’s world, too. On “Jolene” he sings, “I found myself face down in a ditch, booze in my hand, blood on my lips, a picture of you holding a picture of me, in the pocket of my blue jeans.” The remorse of some unknown transgression is palpable. On “Empty” he asks, “Will I always feel this way? So empty, so estranged?” as he battles with some serious inner demons.
But, the fact of the matter is that it’s easier to write a song about what’s wrong. It’s inordinately more difficult to write a song about what’s right. Love and pain surely have equal footing on the ladder of lyrical inspirations, but it’s hard to sing about the former without sounded like a smug, sugarcoated sap. LaMontagne has created many a ballad surrounding the detailed intricacies of long-standing intimacy and the simple happiness obtained from seemingly mundane events, like coming home to your better half after a rough day at work or talking until the sun comes up.
In today’s stark musical terrain, LaMontagne’s music is a fresh reminder that our environment is not completely deprived of nourishment. Love can and should be in the forefront of our minds. After all, the cliché claims that love does move mountains, and LaMontagne’s music can, too. Just not the fluffy, cotton candy variety.
He said it: ““I never expected things to be this good. And yet I almost feel more uncertain about the future than I did when I was struggling day to day. Sometimes I wonder, ‘What’ll I do if it goes away?’ I don’t want to go back to how it was before. I can pay the bills now, and I have a pickup truck that runs in all five gears. That’s a big deal to me. For years I was limping along with one $400 vehicle after another.”