Measured against the great musical-awakening narratives of history Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads, Bob Dylan playing for a hospitalized Woody Guthrie Ray Lamontagne's story might seem a bit mundane. Waking at 4 in the morning to go to work at a Maine shoe factory, he heard Stephen Stills' "Tree Top Flier" coming from his clock radio. After listening in rapt silence, Lamontagne immediately knew where his life was headed. Sure, as a life-defining moment it lacks some of the drama found in similar tales, but it was enough to get the ball rolling and the result is Lamontagne's soulful debut Trouble.
From the opening of the title track, Lamontagne proves he means business. Over a strummed guitar and a solid bass line, he laments, "Trouble… / Trouble, trouble, trouble/ Trouble been doggin' my soul since the day I was born." The sentiment is straight out of a classic blues song, and Lamontagne's delivery is confident and heartfelt, as if he's been doing this his whole life. His voice is a hushed rasp, with echoes of Al Green and Richard Manuel, and it can knock you down with its sheer emotional weight. Later in the song, he nearly wails, "I've been saved by a woman/ She won't let me go/ She won't let me go now…." And what should be a joyous situation, in Lamontagne's hands, sounds like a mixed blessing. For all the tenderness of the sentiment, there is the slightest note of sadness, too, of resignation, as if the only reason she is able to keep a hold of him is because he's just too tired, too weary to do anything about it.
One of the themes Lamontagne explores throughout the album is the possibility of finding solace, a place of rest and shelter from the demons that pursue his characters, and quite possibly himself. Most often, this comfort is found in a woman, as in the song "Shelter," where Lamontagne sings, "Listen when/ All of this around us'll fall over/ I'll tell you what we're going to do/ You will shelter me my love/ and I will shelter you." In "Hold You in My Arms," the gentle touch of a lover is all that is needed to dispel the questions that plague the singer: "When you kissed my lips with my mouth so full of questions/ It's my worried mind that you quiet/ Place your hands on my face/ Close my eyes and say/ Love is a poor man's food/ Don't prophesize/ I could hold you in my arms."
And yet, Lamontagne is acutely aware that the promise of rest is never a sure
thing. In "Narrow Escape," he presents us with a scene of tragedy shattering
the delicate wall of safety. "Burn" reveals how the greatest obstacle to peace
is often our own pride and stubbornness: "To see you now with him/ Is just making
me mad/ Oh so kiss him again/ Just to prove to me that you can/ and I will stand
here/ And burn in my skin." One of the strongest songs on the album, "Jolene," finds
the singer acknowledging his failure to hold on to the solace offered: "Held
you in my arms one time/ Lost you just the same/ Jolene/ I ain't about to go
straight." For every song on the album that celebrates the healing connection
between two people, there is another song that questions the very possibility
of such connections.
Musically, Trouble is simple and stripped down, with Lamontagne playing
acoustic guitar and harmonica on all tracks. Ethan Johns, who produced the album,
fleshes out the songs with touches of bass, piano, electric guitar, and harmonium.
In some songs Johns also adds a few touches of strings, which come sliding in
from the corner and gently lift the melodies. Behind the simple arrangements,
nourished in the fertile ground of his songwriting, lie Lamontagne's roots. The
descending strings halfway into "Trouble" grow straight
out of Van Morrison's "Sweet Thing" from Astral Weeks. The lines "A man
needs something he can hold on to/ A nine-pound hammer or a woman like you/ Either
one of them things will do," from "Jolene," reach all the way back to the Monroe
Brothers and beyond. Lamontagne knows where his songs come from, and he cultivates
and transforms those influences into something uniquely his own.