Over four previous albums, singer and songwriter Ray LaMontagne has presented as many different musical portraits of himself. What united those records was the signature world-weariness in his writing and singing -- even in the seeming celebratory roots rock on 2009's God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise. While Supernova, helmed by producer Dan Auerbach, presents yet another aspect of the songwriter's persona, that earthly weightiness all but vanishes. This is simultaneously LaMontagne's most sonically ambitious and purposefully referential offering to date; but the considerable topical and melodic shift in his songwriting dictated it. These songs are brighter, lighter, and musically more labyrinthine despite their ready accessibility. Auerbach's sound and textural palettes are so expansive he seems to have evoked Jack Nitzsche as a muse. He chose the band to orchestrate these songs that draw so heavily from Southern California's psychedelic pop and country-rock of the late 1960s and early '70s. "Lavender" has fat electric guitar chords that give way to a strummed acoustic guitar, Mellotron, and electric harpsichord. The dreamy Eastern feel in the music is held to earth by clipped snares and a lean bassline. But LaMontagne's layered, reverbed vocal and its whispered, percussive, "tchick-ahhh" chorus effects make the song's textures swirl. "Airwaves," in its hepcat acoustic soul and dreamy jazz, is one of several places where LaMontagne acknowledges the influence of early Van Morrison (from Astral Weeks through Moondance). "Pick Up a Gun" is darkly tinged at inception; it recalls Alice Coltrane's modalism with its harp-like Mellotron intro, but breaks into four different segments inside five minutes. It's alternately a sweet country waltz, a progressive folk-rock tune à la Tim Buckley, and a tripped-out pop tune à la Brian Wilson. "Julia" borrows the vamp from Them's "Gloria" but winds it out in grand psych rock style to become something other. The title track initially evokes the spirit of Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" with its minimal acoustic guitar vamp, pulsing organ (that sounds more like a Farfisa than a Hammond), and handclaps, but threads it with a retro-soul bridge and layers of progressive instrumentation, including glockenspiel and Mellotron, which float under a sitar impersonation and reverbed drums. "Ojai" is shimmering country-rock that simultaneously recalls Tim Hardin and John Phillips. The shifting rhythms and textures in "Smashing" are so exquisitely arranged and orchestrated, it feels like a rock suite with the alluring melody of a pop song. Closer "Drive-In Movies" an easy-grooving acoustic rocker with electric and pedal steel guitars holding the center, offers a notion of reminiscence that seems to thematically underscore the entire record. Supernova is unapologetically and indulgently retro; a casual listen might dismiss it as mere nostalgia. But pairing Auerbach's detailed, careful production with LaMontagne's open, expertly crafted songwriting and breezy, sensual, emotionally unburdened signing, that boundary is shattered.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek