On the strength of the hit “Beg Steal Or Borrow,” Ray LaMontagne’s fourth record, God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, was a commercial success and eventual Grammy winner, though critics (somewhat unfairly) dismissed the album as uneven, unfocused, and unadventurous. In the four years since, LaMontagne has taken these appraisals to heart—the new Supernova is a surprisingly bold, enterprising follow-up from an artist who could have easily ridden out the rest of his career on adult-alternative autopilot. Produced by Dan Auerbach, the record mostly sets aside the neo-Bob Seger roots-rock of God Willin’ and undertakes an expansive survey of the psychedelic-tinged ’60s music scene.
Supernova is saturated in Auerbach’s contributions, but it’s much more than just LaMontagne’s songs laid atop bluesy Black Keys riffs. Across the album, both LaMontagne and Auerbach show a willingness to try new things: The hazy “Pick Up A Gun,” for example, lazily drifts through four key changes while building quiet, compelling drama—it’s a track with subtle elements of the two musicians’ styles but does not fit comfortably into either’s canon. From hollow, echoing backup choruses and meandering organ runs to thick, trippy jams, Auerbach’s flower-child revival injects LaMontagne’s rustic folk-rock with looseness and a sense of mystery. For his part, LaMontagne keeps it all reasonably polished and structured, and works in healthy bits of the Western, country, and R&B deployed on God Willin’.
The union isn’t always seamless, and Supernova at times feels like a track-by-track reinvention, with LaMontagne abruptly trading his raspy Joe Cocker vocals for soulful impressions of Otis Redding and soft, wispy British Invasion-era harmonies. This juxtaposition can even occur within the same song, for example, the title track, which begins—in typical LaMontagne form—with a swift acoustic thump and lyrics about young people in small towns before reverting into an airy, kaleidoscopic pop chorus. Cuts such as this could have perhaps been further massaged into sonic coherence, but, with repeated listens, the pairing of heartland folk and counterculture psych-rock forms an internal logic that’s not difficult to get accustomed to. Supernova’s experiments aren’t all triumphs by any means, but, given how painless it would have been to stay the course, LaMontagne is to be commended for taking on a challenge at all.