Written by Sieya Sims
Upon listening to singer-songerwriter Ray LaMontagne's new album, Ouroboros, this writer began reflecting on the artist's ever-changing career. This piece reviews LaMontagne's new album and discusses the evolution of his sound from gritty vagabond folk to polished psych-rock.
It was the summer of 2009, I had just graduated from high school and was set to leave for college in a few weeks. My high school boyfriend and I had embarked on a trip from my hometown in Virginia to the Appalachian Mountains. We were going our separate ways for school, and were trying to soak up every bit of time together before what we thought was going to be the end of our lives. As we approached the mountains, he told me to reach into the glove compartment because he had a gift for me. I opened it, and it was a burned CD he had made full of love songs. The first song on the CD was “You Are the Best Thing” by Ray LaMontagne – a soulful, upbeat, loving tune backed by a gospel choir and a myriad of horns. The song is written for a woman Ray is infatuated with. He confesses, “You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” At 17 years old, I was in love for the first time, and this raspy voiced fellow was summing up everything I felt as we drove off into the sunset. This was the first day I was introduced to Ray LaMontagne’s music, and I have loved it ever since. Since then, I’ve purchased every album and traveled countless miles to see him in concert six times (seven this September).
I primarily grew up on soul and blues music – BB King, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, etc. I appreciated Ray LaMontagne from the moment I first heard him because he sounded like a modern day blues artist. His lyrics spoke of cheating women, dive bar fights, and traveling the open road. I used his songs to cope with my own life, but also to fantasize about places I’ve never been and situations I’ve never experienced. While traditionally classified as a folk artist, I’ve always considered Ray’s music as no less soulful than any of the original greats. His sound consistently fell under this realm, at least in my own mind, for his first four studio albums: Trouble (2004), Till the Sun Turns Black (2006), Gossip in the Grain (2008), and God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise (2010). In 2010 I could not stop listening to his album God Willin and The Creek Don’t Rise. It is one of the few albums where there is no song I would ever skip. Ray took a four-year break from releasing music until 2014, when he released Supernova, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (who also has a nice modern day bluesy sound).
After listening to Supernova from start to finish after it’s release in 2014, I wasn’t sure what to think. As a music fan, one of the hardest things to do is to accept a change in sound, especially when you’ve come to love and appreciate them the way they are. Supernova wasn’t soulful at all, more psychedelic rock. The songs were all generally upbeat and very retro. You could feel the 1960’s influence on every track, but instead of Ray’s typical gut-wrenching vocals and hardcore harmonica-playing, the sound was more melodic, airy, and filled with harmonies. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just didn’t like that Ray was doing it. I saw him in concert for the Supernova tour twice and it seemed like the other fans in the audience felt the same way. They bopped their heads along to the new songs, but cheered, cried, and sang along loudly for the older tunes. Experiencing the new songs live did help with my perception of Ray’s new sound though. There was a psychedelic light show accompanying the concert that made everything feel more holistic, and over time I learned to appreciate the album for what it was.
When I heard that Ray’s new album Ouroboros was going to be released on March 4, 2016, two years after the release of Supernova, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know if Ray was planning on keeping up with the psychedelic pop sound from Supernova, or if he would go back to his roots. Deep down, I was hoping it would have more of the blues sound, but knew since the first single “Hey No Pressure” debuted in January that this would not be the case. Jim James from My Morning Jacket produced the album, and the backing instrumentalists for both the album and the tour were going to be from his band. My Morning Jacket is a southern rock band that has an experimental and psychedelic feel – similar to artists like Wilco and Dr. Dog, but with a lot more reverberation.
Ouroboros is only eight songs, broken up into a “Part One” that includes four songs, and a “Part Two” that is also four songs. The entire album totals only 39 minutes. The term “Ouroboros” historically represents a circular symbol depicting a snake swallowing its tail as an emblem of infinity. I could feel the theme throughout the album. It was a fluid story, and the beginning seemed to connect back to the end.
Part One of Ouroboros begins with the track “Part One – Homecoming”, an eight-minute-and-thirty-second intro filled with instrumental breaks, an ambient vibe, and light vocals. The song is relaxing, and I could imagine myself listening to it while lying on the beach. Next up was “Part One – Hey No Pressure,” the first single released from the album. This track grabbed my attention with a bluesy guitar intro, but quickly turned back into the psychedelic sound with a long outro of him repeating “Hey, no pressure” in a whisper. Next was “Part One – The Changing Man” which followed the same style - harmonic vocals, long instrumental breaks, and minimal lyrics. Finally on Part One was a song entitled “While it Still Beats.” It was at this point I realized Ray is telling a full story. This song is directly connected to “The Changing Man,” even repeating some exact lyrics like “They’ll cut it out while it still beats.” The storyline of this song and the previous one are more classic Ray, from the viewpoint of a rambling man. He also references the sun a few times, which made more sense when I listened to Part Two.
Part Two of Ouroboros was noticeably more emotional than the first half, beginning with “Part Two – In My Own Way” where he sings, “Lock the door, draw the shades, close my eyes, I’m miles away. I’ll spend the day in my own way.” It was in this song that he introduced the moon theme that is prevalent in Part Two. The CD cover is actually a picture of a moon surrounded by an ouroboros, which also looks like a sun in a stage of eclipse.
Following this song, Ray sings “Part Two - Another Day,” which was again very 60s-inspired and spoke of the moon. Unfortunately, when I reached this point in the album all of the songs began to sound similar which started to bore me. I got worried, but gave the remainder of the album a chance. The penultimate song, “Part Two - A Murmuration of Starlings” is an instrumental track that begins with a steel guitar intro. I thought this song was quite beautiful, definitely my favorite track on the album. Ray closes off the album with “Part Two – Wouldn’t It Make a Lovely Photograph”. The introduction of this song seemed like a direct continuation of the last instrumental song’s ending, showing that the album is supposed to be listened to in order and not on shuffle. The song ends very abruptly. Surprisingly, I was left finding myself wanting more. Maybe it meant I was supposed to begin again at the start of the album so that it comes full circle like an ouroboros.
Each time I’ve listened to Ouroboros, just as with Supernova, it grew on me with each run through. Overall, I like the dreamy style and find each song to be quite pretty, but I can’t imagine it having a long lasting impact on me like some of his earlier albums. Unfortunately, I found myself wishing that Ouroboros was something else. I’m not saying I was disappointed, but the album felt overproduced and drowned out a lot of Ray’s vocal ability. Listening to Ouroboros made me feel a bit nostalgic. Maybe it was the retro psychedelic vibe that made me dream of an era that I was not alive to enjoy, but I think it might be because I realized that the “Old Ray” is gone, and that I need to accept that his original sound is not coming back. This is no fault of his, but one of mine. If I’m going to stay a fan, I will need to adapt. If an artist stayed the same forever then they wouldn’t be an artist, constantly testing new territories and evolving. One thing I always admired about Ray was his “realness” – a rugged vagabond on the open road. It seems as though I’ve lost him to mysticism, and I’m still debating on whether to follow him.