“Never going to hear this song on the radio,” Ray Lamontagne sings at the close of his new album.
If that sounds like a complaint, in context it reads more like a boast. Lamontagne has seemingly fashioned his sixth album, Ouroboros, as a work of private exploration, a vehicle for divining the inner life far more than a product designed to glad-hand its way up the pop charts.
In that sense, Ouroboros greatly extends the path Lamontagne set out on his last work, 2014’s Supernova. Both works favor sounds that implicate rather than state, making full use of fuzz-toned guitars, hazy production and blurry vocal cascades. Likewise, both albums pair the singer with strong-minded producers who double as stars. Supernova matched Lamontagne with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Ouroboros features production from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Other members of MMJ also play on the new album and will join Lamontagne for his spring/summer tour.
While the two albums share a love of psychedelia, they delve into very different sides of its spectrum. Supernova found the husky-throated singer California Dreamin’ his way back to the summery sounds of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. The new album takes him to the dark side—specifically to the Dark Side of the Moon. Ouroboros is both a heavier and a headier work than Supernova, replete with Pink Floyd-style sound effects; Nick Mason-like, mid-paced drumming; and David Gilmore-esque blues guitar reveries. One song, “In My Own Way,” even sounds a bit like Floyd’s Dark Side’s lolling “Us & Them.”
To boldface the album’s connection to the art-rock wing of psychedelia, Lamontagne broke it into “Part I” and “Part II.” In the process, the work apes the flip-over flow of ancient vinyl.
The result has some consequences. The floating melodies and drenched production take away much of the texture from Lamontagne’s voice—one of its most riveting qualities. Though Lamontagne owns one of the greatest soul shouts of the modern era, he has always been stingy with it. This time, he seems more hellbent on downplaying it than ever.
On the other hand, that very evasiveness has always made Lamontagne a fascinating figure. His music has never been obvious or outgoing, preferring to keep the pace slow, the vocals whispered and the focus monk-like. Together, this has made Lamontange one of the most quietly intense singer/songwriters of our time. Unfortunately, parts of Ouroboros seem less “quietly intense” than self-indulgently rote. As if to satirize the problem, the album title refers to a mythical serpent that devours its own tail.
Ouroboros does have periods of greater animation—two, in fact. “Hey, No Pressure” resurrects Auerbach’s love of fuzz-toned blues rock, via a hot psychedelic freakout. “The Changing Man” locks two guitars in an exciting coil, with Lamontagne’s lead building to a mad, sawing climax.
The album didn’t necessarily need more such outbursts. But it should have made some of its softer sections seem less arbitrary. If all of its parts can’t stand up to scrutiny, however, there’s conviction in the whole, enough to take Lamontagne one step deeper into the mystic.