“Homecoming,” the opening track of Ray LaMontagne’s sixth album, Ouroboros, won’t sound alien to fans of the New Hampshire-born singer-songwriter: moody introspection, breathy vocals, stark and spacious tracks characterized by minimal and ambient instrumentation.
“Show me the feathers you’ve found / The glass in the ground / a comforting sound when the lights are down,” LaMontagne avows, invoking a palpable sense of loss while also considering whether it might be possible for one to experience peace and wholeness, at least momentarily, in a world rife with illusions. While “Homecoming” hints at an evolved and more complex LaMontagne, it also grounds the listener in stylings explored in previous CDs, especially Till the Sun Turns Black (2006) and Gossip in the Grain (2008).
With “Hey, No Pressure,” released as a single in January, LaMontagne hybridizes the dark textures of his early work with the pop sensibilities displayed most notably in 2014’s Supernova. The guitar riff strikes me as particularly adventurous, the wispy distortion reminiscent of Jack White or Neil Young circa Rust Never Sleeps.
It doesn’t matter lose or win
Hey, no pressure
It’s all illusion in the end
The trappings of the world, LaMontagne suggests — particularly the trappings of commercial rock — are the enemy. In this sense, Ouroboros represents the artist’s awareness of his proverbial sirens. I’m also reminded of the biblical story of Christ drawing a line in the desert sand; Satan, in this case, tantamount to corporations, record labels, invasive media, and perhaps overeager fans — the endless stream of empty promises, the lures of insubstantial fame and success.
“I am the changing man/ So ends the game/ So ends the chase,” LaMontagne announces on “The Changing Man.” The musical segue at 2:40 shows LaMontagne, co-producer Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and the band venturing into a sound reminiscent of The Beatles’ “I Want You.” The piece segues seamlessly into the next track, “While It Still Beats,” where LaMontagne misanthropically vents: “If you don’t give them every ounce, they’ll cut it out while it still beats.” The song ends with him supplicating, “Point me towards the sun,” the artist’s metaphoric attempt to distinguish between the vapidity of manmade things and the blessings that nature unconditionally bestows.
If in previous albums LaMontagne occasionally tipped his hat to Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, and Nick Drake as well as (especially with Supernova but also the title track of his 2004 debut) Otis Redding and Joe Cocker, with Ouroboros the primary and recurrent reference is to Pink Floyd. “In My Own Way” conjures Dark Side of the Moon, such songs as “Breathe,” “Time,” and “Us and Them.” The instrumental break at 1:31 is memorable, an exquisite and wending guitar melody that heightens the mood of the song. LaMontagne professes his version of Zen:
We’re only here a moment
then the moment’s gone
I’ll spend the day in my own way.
The track highlights his ability to blend rock staples with melodic delicacy, a balance that’s certainly one of Pink Floyd’s salient legacies — the capacity to simultaneously bombard and caress a listener, to mine such tried-and-true formulae as ringing guitar chords and sustained distortions while also integrating subtle textures and fleeting accents.
On “Another Day,” LaMontagne concludes, “There’s really not that much to say/ It’s just another day,” addressing both the freedom that comes with nonattachment and the ennui associated with day-to-day routines. The instrumental “A Murmuration of Starlings,” though devoid of his vocals and lyrical branding, is in no way filler. In terms of the CD’s overall tone, it’s as important a track as any on the project. The guitar parts would delight David Gilmore, minimal and accessibly evocative, again referencing Dark Side of the Moon but also stylings that I associate with Wish You Were Here or Animals.
The concluding track, “Wouldn’t It Make a Lovely Photograph,” ends with LaMontagne defiantly proclaiming, “You’re never going to hear this song on the radio,” reiterating his declaration of independence. By God he’ll write and record what he wants in whatever way he wants, without fear of marginalization. Of course, this position is part and parcel of his persona, one he’s cultivated over the years, and certainly not one unique to him; however, by stressing his commitment to follow his creative impulses, above all other concerns, LaMontagne embraces what the ouroboros as a symbol underscores, that we’re at our best when we trust the source of our inspiration, rightsizing our strategies and egoic agendas. In this way, the artistic process becomes a mystical venture, a search in the epic sense of the word. LaMontagne’s latest is aptly named.