Ray LaMontagne – ‘Part Of The Light’ Review

We live in the age of the unreal. Russian bots pose as right-wing online activists, phishing scams as Facebook quizzes and potential Tinder hook-ups, Muppets as world leaders. In music too, we have boybands hailed as indie saviours, solo laptop fiddlers sounding like apocalyptic orchestras and ‘transangels’, R&B and rap acts trying to emulate self-improving AIs. From Sgt Pepper and Ziggy Stardust to the very modern fantasy of Björk renting out the penthouse at the Tranquility Hotel Base & Casino, music has thrived on and fed from a sense of hyper-reality, but are we in danger of losing grip on honesty, humanity and heart in this brave, artificial new world?

This is where neo-folk acts like Father John Misty, Bon Iver and Ray LaMontagne play an integral, rooting role. Semi-reclusive and press-reticent, LaMontagne has spent fifteen years in a dream-like folk-rock state, his records often sounding like someone has set up a microphone in the basement of the Big Pink house in Woodstock and captured the ghostly echoes of The Band haunting the place. He knows the power of the spectral and the flesh, the emotional and the intangible, and his seventh album ‘Part Of The Light’ finds him straddling the divide more confidently than ever.

Reeling in the Floydish psych rock indulgences of 2016’s ‘Ouroboros’ (recorded with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James), LaMontagne wraps that record’s afterglow aura around the sort of playful pastoral melodies that won him Grammys as the backwoods Nick Drake back in the ’00s. Glacial opening shanty ‘To The Sea’ toys worryingly with whimsical Jethro Tull intonation and fol-de-rol rural imagery – “There’s old Tom in a coat and tie/Looking every ounce the prince” Ray trills, on a drive to the seaside that Enid Blyton might have writ – but it’s uphill from there. The strident ‘Paper Man’ inhabits a gently swirling space midway between Father John Misty, early Elton and Death Cab For Cutie, and the title track is a gorgeous shoegaze take on the Camberwick Green theme (i.e. the music-box guitar tune your dad hums in his sleep while dreaming about the ’70s). Meanwhile, ‘It’s Always Been You’ and the piano-laden ‘Let’s Make It Last’ are as affecting a pair of space-folk nocturnes as you’ll find outside of Low’s Meltdown.

Come the latter half, there are spots of blustery ’70s bar-room blues-rock on ‘As Black As Blood Is Blue’ and ‘No Answer Arrives’ that add to no conversation anyone’s having, break the album’s spell and bring you out of your reverie like a shot of Jack in the eyeball. Thankfully, closer ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ is a sumptuous country swoon capable of wiping clean the record’s hoarier moments, and we end embedded once more in LaMontagne’s misty mystique. Reality? Over-rated.