The trick of all great balladeers is to compel you to turn your ear to the speakers...
Chris Moss 2007
For a man who likes to pose as an idiosyncratic loner, Ray LaMontagne has a lot of musical friends. On Till The Sun Turns Black, the follow-up to the much acclaimed 2004 album, Trouble, are echoes of David Bowie ca. Space Oddity, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and even Miles Davis. All these influences are carefully worked into LaMontagne’s own particular world-view and suggest too this brooding cowboy might want a bigger audience.
The New Hampshire-born singer delivers a stirring cycle of songs that summon us to hope while never quite shedding their melancholy burden. The opening track, "Be Here Now", fades into existence gently, coming out of some inner silence to settle and brood – throughout the album we return to these silent spaces of reflection and regret. "Barfly" is a bittersweet round-the-fire guitar song, which finds the singer on familiar territory: America, nowhere special, all alone, contemplating his fate. "Three More Days" reminds us that he can do the blues as well as sound just plain blue.
Noted alt-country producer Ethan Johns (who has also worked with Ryan Adams and the Kings of Leon) was criticised for smoothing down some of the rough edges on Trouble and once again his hand in honing the overall feel of songs is evident. LaMontagne has said he chose songs that “ate away” at him for Till The Sun…, but sometimes the raw emotion of his voice is woven into an overly polished treatment. The horns on "Gone Away from Me" and "Within You" don’t embellish so much as clutter those tracks. In contrast, the lean strings on "Empty" work beautifully with the understated mood and whispering vocals.
He’s not a great writer, but he excels at imbuing simple lyrics with portentous significance. LaMontagne loves the second person singular – not necessarily the ideal folk-song voice – but he addresses his subjects with real pain and occasional anger - and it works.
The best songs on the album, "Lesson Learned" and "Empty", are probably neither as convincing nor as complex as "Jolene" on Trouble. In some ways that song remains a benchmark, for achieving the perfect balance of thought and feeling that keeps LaMontagne from falling too far into the sensitive-songwriter mode. Till the Sun Turns Black is a quite beautiful record. Somewhere to rest on the journey between a contemporary American culture he clearly loathes and the Great Diner in the Sky that awaits us all.