YOU CAN’T experience pop folk music today without noting the lack of politics in its sound and lyrics. Gone are the days of genuine implorations to governments or the gentry (acts today would rather cover “Masters of War” than write a new iteration—and, no, “Raising McCain” doesn’t count). So it would seem only natural that contemporary folk musicians would look inward rather than outward for inspiration and write about the ultimate issue which unites us all to a common experience: heartbreak.
Ray LaMontagne has a knack for getting in your head. His voice is pained, his lyrics pleading and pitiful, and the stories in the songs are genuine enough to think that you had lived them, because you have. You will find that you are the glue to this motley track list, the reason they exist at all, and you’ve never been so grateful to be reminded of your past heartache.
This spectacular album’s arc is one of love and loss, hope and resignation, and it is so befitting an autumnal release one would think that this Maine folk singer has always flirted with the sorrow of changing leaves. The legend of LaMontagne is interesting, though ultimately a red herring to this album (yes his father was a singer/songwriter who abandoned the family to do nothing of import; yes Ray grew up denouncing music until he one day heard a Stephen Stills song whereupon he promptly quit his job at a shoe factory and picked up a guitar) and when vetoing the hype of any published musician you are left merely with the music and your memory, and here that is a good thing.
In the beginning there is light. Bright, beautiful horns bring you up into the realm of a standard Motown staccato, and La Montagne’s voice, like a Joe Cocker for the new millennium, comes on over an acoustic guitar strumming in the San Diego surf fashion. It is at once raspy and soulful, courting a new paramour. The mix of influences is quite effective: a simple but fun song you’ll be singing to yourself all day only because the title (and refrain), “You Are the Best Thing,” is just fun to sing.
But as the relationship takes a turn for the tragic, the fun gives way to the sad bulk of the album (or your post-breakup status with your lost love). Our hero pleads to stay relevant in her life (“Let It Be Me”), and then names his ex on “Sarah,”—the crown jewel of the album—where the strings and arrangement of Nick Drake’s “Five Leaves Left” mix with the craftsmanship of Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.” LaMontagne asks, “Is it ever going to be the same?” in a way you may have asked before, and, in this instant when he loses his love, you will find that Gossip in the Grain isn’t just an American folk album, it is perhaps the American folk album of 2008. He continues his dance with anguish in the haunting “I Still Care for You”—an incredible dalliance into the haze of ethereal acoustics whose echoing refrain reminds you of what you lost, too. But as in any breakup story, another pretty face can serve as a fine distraction, and Ray LaMontagne, in a last minute replacement track (perhaps because maybe he has a shot) sings a love song to White Stripes drummer Meg White with hints of DeVotchka and the Turtles.
Other tracks bring together influences from crossroads blues to banjo-driven bluegrass, and while the album perhaps loses its way with these odd additions, I assure you that you will endeavor repeated listenings, and these songs become a comfort rather than a distraction. The closing title track reflects LaMontagne’s heartbreak, showing how universally love ultimately leads to loss. But not everyone writes an album about it with such effusive dexterity, tact, and charm. With a voice that can be as rough as a cat’s tongue and as soft as its fur, Ray LaMontagne has staged a triumphant third album that can only be heard as marvelous remembrances of the politics of your heart.
Nicholas James McDowell is a copywriter in New York.
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