Daniel Lanois: Born Again

One of my favorite stories of 2010– and one that, I must say, has garnered surprisingly little attention– is that of Daniel Lanois, a true legend who is experiencing what I’m very tempted to call his best year ever. It’s a creative rebirth, of sorts, that a more dramatic person might attribute to his near-lethal motorcycle collision from earlier this year, the kind of thing that sometimes has an oddly restorative effect on creative types; then again, given that much of his 2010 output was completed before the accident, it’s probably more reasonable to suggest, simply, that some things do indeed get better with age.

The thing about Lanois is that he’s always been involved in great record, and sometimes it’s almost in spite of himself. There’s something about him that serves as a sort of creative catalyst for great musicians to do some of their best writing and performing– something Bono has affirmed time and time again– though there are times when it seems as though the man tries everything in his power to dilute the impact of those performances by wrapping them in a thick layer of sonic gauze. To that end, I confess to having a bit of a love/hate relationship with what has been called the Lanois Sound, and can really only talk about it on a case-by-case basis. I, for one, think his artier inclinations served the mood on Dylan‘s Time Out of Mind quite well, and I have no beef with the swampy textures he brought to Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball. Less satisfying to my ears are the album he did with Willie Nelson and his work on Peter Gabriel‘s Us, and though his U2 albums are generally quite good, Lanois has seemed, for most of his career, completely ill-equipped for recording a really good, visceral rock and roll song, and I suspect that The Joshua Tree could have been an even better record had it been preserved with a little more of its grit and energy intact.

But the real problem with the Lanois sound, as I see it, is not that it’s an inherently poor sonic template to work from– again, I think it has quite often fit the music rather well– but that it is evidence of a certain degree of ego, or at least of meddling, in that it suggests Lanois is insistent on leaving his own huge, unmistakable stamp on everything he records. There is a quite common knock against the man, that he makes Bob Dylan sound like U2 sound like Emmylou Harris, and if that’s an exaggeration, it’s only a slight one. But I would contend that it’s a criticism that doesn’t hold up to his two most noteworthy 2010 releases– which, for my purposes anyway, are the record he made with Neil Young and the debut of his own band Black Dub, not the Brandon Flowers solo album, which I honestly just can’t muster the enthusiasm to hear.

The sound of these albums– and of the Neil, in particular– is not drastically different from anything he’s done before; indeed, Lanois spoke in interviews about how he worked his “sonics” into the Young album just as he has so many times in the past. But if the difference here isn’t extreme, it is significant. What’s remarkable about Le Noise, at least to my ears, is the sympathetic relationship between performer and producer. Here, Lanois doesn’t sound like’s trying to impose himself so much as he’s serving the songs in the best way he knows how. And to that end, the production doesn’t necessarily sound all that similar to his work on, say, Time Out of Mind, save for on the two acoustic numbers, which do indeed bear some of the ol’ Lanois reverb-heavy/high-ceiling echo of that great album. Instead, the songs are abuzz with noise, awash in pure volume; the productions are, to borrow one of Young’s own lyrics, “a rumblin,'” something that not only fits the frame of mind that the singer seems to be in but gives the album a vitality that’s missing from some of Lanois’ lesser works. There are, in other words, no songs that feel like arty pretension just for the sake of it– nothing like the Dylan track “Dirt Road Blues,” a song so stripped of its grit that it easily ranks as my least-favorite Lanois production of all time– but rather the production feels like an honest, full-bore interaction with the writing and the performance, which makes the whole thing feel significantly less Lanois-centric than his usual fare.

As for the excellent Black Dub LP, it’s probably fair to say that the very existence of this project is as much responsible for Lanois’ creative rebranding this year as anything else. I get the impression that he’s sorta always wanted to lead a full-on rock band– hanging around with U2 all these years was bound to have that effect on him– and finally seeing that dream made real has loosened him up considerably, at times almost too much so: He sounds like he’s having a blast, simply letting loose with his guitar freak-outs and getting lost in drummer Brian Blade‘s rhythms on “Ring the Alarm,” but at seven minutes it is, perhaps, a tad indulgent. But I would take a Lanois who is indulging in simply having a good time over the more portentous, self-serious Lanois of old any day, and, to that end, it might be said that he’s tapping into a side of himself we’ve never had on record before, sounding like he’s having a blast in the slippery grooves of “The Last Time” and becoming positively playful in the spirited, good-natured ragtime number “Sing.”

There is, of course, a lot of seriousness to the album, but why shouldn’t there be? The picture we get of Daniel Lanois here is much fuller and more multi-faceted than any we’ve seen before, so the songs mentioned above fit quite nicely in the context of the more solemn, introspective spiritual “I Believe in You” as well as the earnest, inspirational “Canaan,” both songs that one somewhat wishes U2 would cover somewhere down the road, whether Lanois happens to be in the producer’s chair or not.

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4 responses to “Daniel Lanois: Born Again”

  1. Kaspar Pflugshaupt says :

    Hi Josh,

    “Lanois has seemed, for most of his career, completely ill-equipped for recording a really good, visceral rock and roll song”

    — I have just re-discovered (and listened to for most of the week) Chris Whitley’s debut album “Living with the Law”, produced by Lanois. I think the whole album is a counter-example to your sentence quoted above — full of gritty, visceral blues songs that just blow me away. It rocks, too.

    OK, so you wrote “for most of his career”… :-)
    It’s a significant example for the (little?) rest of his career then, and demonstrates that the man can do grit indeed, if he chooses to.

    Enjoying your writing, as always

    Kaspar

  2. Josh Hurst says :

    Love the work he with with Whitley, and yes, there’s a bluesy grit to it that sets it apart from most of Lanois’ work; that said, I’m not sure that the material on that record exhibits the propulsion or the energy of rock and roll, which is something I think he’s generally very ill-equipped at doing.

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