TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Ray LaMontagne has a new album called "Supernova." It's his fifth album, his first in four years after winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2010. "Supernova" was produced by the Black Keys's Dan Auerbach and rock critic Ken Tucker says the music on "Supernova" casts the frequently reserved LaMontagne in a new light.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERNOVA")
RAY LAMONTAGNE: (Singing) Zoe, you and me, we've been hanging out now ever since we were kids, just kicking around this town. Zoe, you know me and I don't back down. I know what I want, I think I found it. I want you to be my girl. I want you to be my girl.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's the title song on Ray LaMontagne's new album, "Supernova." It features sunny, just-this-side-of-psychedelic production and instrumentation. The song is a bright plea to a woman to join the singer on some new romantic adventures. For a guy who made his reputation as a morosely troubled, soulful crooner, it's a departure and a welcome one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OJAI")
LAMONTAGNE: (Singing) I've been a savior, a sad man, a stranger stung by anger, burned by love. Feels so scattered, and nothing really matters. Put that sign out of my front door.
TUCKER: LaMontagne is a 40-year-old singer-songwriter who has succeeded in the circuitous manner of the current music industry. He spent the early part of his career in the rural Northeast, mostly Maine and Massachusetts, woodshedding songs that were influenced by '60s soul music and '70s singer-songwriters.
He has said that the Stephen Stills album "Manassas" was a pivotal inspiration to pursue a career in music, which is the best thing I've ever heard about "Manassas." LaMontagne's chalky voice and murmured confidences, along with Los Angeles recording sessions for his early albums, put him on the West Coast media radar.
Pretty soon, his meticulous melancholy was providing mood music, with songs popping up in the background of TV shows including "Parenthood," "Bones" and, heaven help us, "Criminal Minds." LaMontagne became a reluctant star without being coy or irritating about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIRWAVES")
LAMONTAGNE: (Singing) Where you going, Rusty James? To rumble on lives and change. What you doing, Betty Sue? What you say? What you thinking? I'm coming with you. I'm coming with you. Rolling out of East L.A., making our way to Santa Fe. Man, sure do look pretty. She said feels so good to get myself out of the city. Through the airwaves can't you feel the fallout? It's in the airwaves. Can't you hear me calling out?
TUCKER: The achievement of "Supernova" is that, five albums in, he hasn't settled into a formula or a fall-back, recurring mood. He avoids a lot of first-person woolgathering by populating his songs with people he wants to go places with or needs to win over - the Zoe referred to in "Supernova," a whole song called "Julia," a "Rusty James" and a "Betty Sue" in the song I just played "Airwaves."
He surrounds his apostrophes to these people with reverberating electric guitars and tumbling drum figures. The result is headlong music that keeps LaMontagne chasing after his own melodies which mitigates a flaw in his earlier recordings - a tendency to become dolorously languid.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JULIA")
LAMONTAGNE: (Singing) Julia. We're so glad you found the time. We're so glad you found the time 'cause it ain't easy. Julia, it's so good you're of the mind. It's so good you're of the mind to come and see me. Sundays in the park. She (unintelligible). Light plays in silent trees. She stays, stays with me.
TUCKER: Ray LaMontagne succeeds in part by strenuously trying to prove he doesn't think about success. He's lucky that his insistence upon living in the musical past, of avoiding anything smacking of the contemporary in favor of music he can wrestle away from baby boomers and revitalize - well, that's turned into a new path to success, as well.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Ray LaMontagne's new album "Supernova." I'm Terry Gross.