Soul Mining: The Mystical Music of Daniel Lanois

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WARNING: What follows may be an annoyingly gushing review by a music geek who loses all sense of perspective and dignity when a new Daniel Lanois record releases…

When mixing and engineer extraordinaire Todd Robbins emailed me about the new Daniel Lanois record, I couldn’t wait. It’s been 4 years since his last proper studio recording, Shine – a record that at the time restored my faith in the power of music.

For those unfamiliar with Lanois, he is the famed producer of some of pop/rock music’s most important records by Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Emmy Lou Harris, and U2 (including the biggest albums of their careers, The Joshua Tree and All That You Can’t Leave Behind. He’s famous for helping these great artists dig deeper and find the soul of their work. He is also the master of electric guitar tone, helping put The Edge of U2 on the path that has made him one of rock music’s most distinctive guitarists. In between these high profile gigs, Lanois also makes his own records that are uniquely his and clearly a labor of love. Lanois is always chasing down the deepest mysteries of music, what it means, where it comes from, and even it’s ultimate destination.

There’s so much folklore surrounding his unorthodox approach that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. I’ve heard rumors of him forcing an artist to go sing their vocal track in his barn to get them out of the mindset of singing in a studio. There’s the story of him ripping Dylan’s cell phone from his hands and throwing it in a lake to make the point that if they were to make a great album together, there could be no distractions and that he needed to be completely present to the process. The result was the Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind.

It’s not hard to believe these stories since Lanois’s own music reveals an artist who is much more interested in the humanity of a performance than perfection. There is plenty of atmosphere and vibey sounds to tickle the ear that could easily degrade into mere ear candy, but Lanois never loses sight of the heart of it. Lanois’ music is not so much about technical precision as it is about a gut level emotional aesthetic. There are imperfections and some of the playing is loose, but it always feels emotional and often transcendant. I guess the best way to describe it is to simply say that Lanois means every note he sings or plays.

Lyrically he’s often bordered on the mystical. Consider this from my personal favorite Lanois record, Shine.

They have spoken of the river
Forever bending inside the fever
Of the saints who walk all night with no domain
In the end the thing that keeps them walking
Is your shine
Your shine when they wear no coat
Your shine when the feeling’s low
Your shine as they labor to the new day…

To me his lyrics always speak to the mystery of God and ultimate meaning. For me, the above lyric rings truer than most of what I hear on CCM radio, and that’s because I think it speaks to divine mystery without trying to reduce it. What the exact nature of Lanois’s spirituality is I’m not sure, (in an interview segment with Brian Eno on this disc, Eno elaborates on his own atheism, however Lanois talks openly of God in other interviews I’ve read) but that his music is deeply religious is undeniable. Shine also features a worship song he wrote with Bono called “Falling At Your Feet” and when I saw Lanois in concert he ended the night with a beautiful little song called “Thank You For The Day”, again written with Bono.

Lanois is releasing his new record, Here Is What Is, digitally 4 months before the official release in March. The much vaunted distinctive about this release is that you can download it either as mp3 files or the actual WAV files which are the larger high quality files on actual CDs. I downloaded the WAV files last night and have been listening to it over and over during my travel day across the continent from Florida to Washington.

I haven’t been able to dig in to the new album a great deal lyrically, but it’s clearly classic Lanois – mystical, arcane, and sadly beautiful. His penchant for gospel music shows up throughout in tracks like “Joy,” “This May Be The Last Time,” and “Where Will I Be”, originally recorded on Emmy Lou Harris’s Wrecking Ball. Here’s a sample lyric:

The heart opens wide
Like it’s never seen love
And addiction stays on tight like a glove
Oh where will I be
Oh where will I be when that trumpet sounds

But it’s really the music that takes center stage here. I think listening to Lanois’s music is like learning a language. I remember when I first heard Sufjan Stevens’s record I was aware that I didn’t have the tools to understand his music – it was something entirely different from what I’d ever heard before, and I had to learn Sufjan’s musical language before I could truly appreciate it. Lanois is similar, but whereas Sufjan’s musical language seems to me to be more about arrangements and his lyrical sense of irony, Lanois’s is more of a sonic language. It’s about tones, wavelengths, soulful performances, and feeling the thing.

I’ve heard that Lanois has talked at length about how the high frequencies of modern mixes – the sizzle that radio likes so much – distracts him from the spiritual energy of music. My understanding is that he feels that the lower frequencies are best suited for conveying the spiritual power of music. “The race to the extension of the high frequency part of the spectrum is choking the shadows of the bass… if you light your picture too bright you will lose your shadows” (This is an interesting analogy to me for lyric writing as well). His record “Shine” is mixed very dark and warm and it ruined my ears for other kinds of mixes! He might be onto something.

My first impression of Here Is What Is is that it’s mixed a bit brighter than Shine and seems a little groovier. My good friend Todd Robbins treated us to a Daniel Lanois show in Minneapolis a couple years ago where an industrial jam band named Tortoise opened for him and then backed him up for his set. There were two drummers and the songs grooved hard. I would venture to guess that tour influenced this record, with at least one song featuring two drum tracks. The arrangements sound like what I remember from the show.

From what I understand, Here Is What Is is part of a film he’s making (see trailer here) about his process of making music, so interspersed throughout are bits of conversation between Lanois and legendary producer Brian Eno (U2, The Talking Heads, Coldplay, Paul Simon, among others). The track titled “Beauty” captures this exchange between them:

LANOIS: I’m trying to make a film…about beauty itself… about the source of the art rather than everything that surrounds the art…

ENO: …What would really be interesting for people to see [in your film] is how beautiful things grow out of shit, because nobody ever believes that… Everybody thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head, that it somehow appeared formed in his head… and all he had to do was write them down… But what would really be a lesson that everyone could learn is that things come out of nothing… the tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest. And then the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing… and I think this would be important for people to understand because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know this is how things work… If you walk around with the idea that there are some people so gifted and have these wonderful things in their head, but you’re not one of them – you’re just a normal person who could never do anything like that – then you live a different kind of life. You could have another kind of life where you say, “Well I know that things come from nothing very much, start from unpromising beginnings, and I’m an unpromising beginning, and I could start something…”

Another track called “Sacred and Secular” captured this conversation:

“To think of sacred and secular being apart… it’s all just always, y’know, praise for me. I can never see [music] another way… it’s always this…”

Lanois says, “The pedal steel is my favorite instrument. It takes me to a sacred place. I call it my church in a suitcase…”, and his playing does reflect something of ecstasy to me. A friend of mine joked after seeing him live that he felt like he needed to smoke a cigarette after. I remember being moved to tears numerous times when I saw him. Whatever is happening in Lanois’ music, for those who connect with it it is something sublime, emotional, intimate, and maybe even holy. Lanois calls what he does “soul-mining” and I can feel his music stir my deeper waters.

Here Is What Is is at it’s best when Lanois’ playing takes center stage – whether it’s a quiet pedal steel song or a searing elecrtic guitar over a deep groove. It’s worship to me. Obviously it is for Lanois, too.

From his keynote address at South by Southwest:

“I practice and put my heart and soul into every note

my passion becomes the same as the one i felt at 9 years old

i invite everyone here this morning to ignite — re-ignite — or just plain old turn up the flame in what you believe in and get to the top of the mountain that you see

invention is in your brain — and that never ending commodity is in the bottom of your heart — it’s called passion

Danny lanois is going down one more time with coal dust in his eyes

going down — soul mining”

You can download Here Is What Is here: www.daniellanois.com

For the uninitiated, you may want to go to iTunes and start to learn Lanois’ musical language from more accessible albums like Acadie and Shine as well as Emmy Lou Harris’s masterpierce Wrecking Ball and U2’s The Joshua Tree. I believe it’s well worth the money as you find yourself swimming in music that is nearly as deep and dark as the mysteries it tries to point to.


10 Comments

  1. Brannon McAllister

    I’m thankful for this post, Jason. Great writing.

    You encapsulated what I’ve been thinking about the record myself. The open space, The loose playing, and the vibey low end frequencies just kill me. For another great rendition of Where Will I Be, check out Emmylou Harris’ version on the opening track of Wrecking Ball.

  2. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I just read a quote from Bono last night that I wished I would have had before to include in this review! Among other lavish praise of Daniel Lanois being one of the great musicians he knows and how he can’t be a part of anything average or that doesn’t ring true or somebody will die – either you or him, he also said that Lanois is the definition of a line that he (Bono) wrote in the U2 song, Vertigo. “…A feeling is much stronger than a thought…”

    I think people are drawn to well crafted lyrics like those of David Wilcox would be disappointed here. It’s more of an emotion that he crafts.

  3. Peter

    Thanks for this post as well as the Andy Goldsworthy post before it (and any number of others before that one.) This place is fast becoming a regular daily stop. What a strange thing to find such a collection of people who love so many of the same things I do. It either means I am much more banal in my interests than I’d like to admit or that this place is something special. Probably a little bit of both, I guess, like everything else. But thank you, and keep up the good work.

  4. Peter

    Oh, and a question for the Proprietor: I hope this hasn’t been mentioned before and I’ve just missed it, but when IS that album coming out?

  5. whipple

    Yes. I love the brutal sonic honesty of “Beauty of Winona” and the glimpse into the warm intimacy of a live show in “Rockets”. It’s about time for a new album.

  6. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    What’s interesting to me about the Winona record is how thin a lot of it sounds sonically compared to later records. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I had a chance to talk several years ago with an engineer who is friends with the guy who mastered the Winona record, and the story goes that when it was turned in, several tracks were so bright and thin sounding that they dumped it to analog (tape) seven times – just kept recording it to analog, then would take that and record it to analog – just to warm it up a bit. This seems so strange to me considering the way Lanois normally works, but that’s the story I heard. However, many of the songs have that usual warm, dark sound that you would expect from Lanois like “The Death Of A Train”.

    Who knows… there’s a great deal of mythology surrounding him. Interesting enough to leave a reply here at least (I hope!)

  7. Todd Robbins

    Wow – that is one of the best written reviews I have ever read. You should do that professionally. Seriously! Let’s hope we can catch another show sometime in the near future!
    -TR

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