Lanois is still following his own muse
Musician and producer Daniel Lanois has been playing pedal steel for a long time, but on his latest release, don’t expect country pickin’ hoedowns or music to blissfully hula to. The all-instrumental album is called Goodbye to Language, but Lanois is, in fact, creating a new language of sorts for his instrument, extending its vocabulary into little-explored territory. With a collection of tracks performed with Rocco DeLuca accompanying on lap steel, the sounds the pair generate are understated to say the least. This is music for narcoleptics and sleepwalkers; murky, riverine and liminal like the light/dark border of early dawn. At times, also, there’s an ecclesiastical or hymn-like mood conjured as the guitars—on their own or through the moderate effects applied—approximate a church organ.
This atmosphere is not something new for Lanois, as there’s always been an undercurrent of deep spirituality on his solo outings, from the stylistic mix of 1989’s Acadie through to the singer-songwriter poetics of Shine (2003)and on to 2014’s pedal steel-driven Flesh and Machine. It also bleeds over into the ambient material he worked on with Brian Eno in the ‘80s and even into some of his production work on platinum albums by U2, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel.
Goodbye to Language is not, unlike many ambient and experimental albums, lengthy. Most songs hover around the two- and three-minute mark. Ideas are explored briefly, and then seemingly set aside to move on to the next one, often within the same song. As such, the effect can be a bit disjointed. Whenever the playing begins to hint at a melodic frame, the melody melts away and disintegrates around another corner. This can be frustrating for the listener looking (consciously or unconsciously) for standard song structure. “Suspended” is a good example of this; deep low notes are struck, warm and enveloping, sounding in brief snatches like David Gilmour’s pedal steel playing, then building towards something never quite arrived at as they arc away into the ether. A more satisfying approach to the album is to go in, as much as possible, with no expectations and let the music flow, ghostly as it is.
Leadoff track, “Low Sudden,” sets the mood and tone—a somber low pulsing over which impressionistic, sparse playing glides. “Deconstruction” was the first track recorded for the album and Lanois’ satisfaction with it made the rest of the album possible. “Satie” is one of the more graceful and luminous cuts, lightening the overall feel of the album with shimmering glissandos.
With Lanois’ extensive big-name production resume, which also includes Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, it would be no surprise if he was putting out high-profile, easily accessible music, replete with guest stars, glitz and glamor. One has to wonder who his intended audience is for albums like this. That’s not to denigrate it at all, but it’s too dark and abstract for standard New Age and certainly not directed at the average U2 buyer. Instead, Lanois is making personal music with no obvious commercial considerations.
In this sense, he’s still in touch with the younger version of himself, when he started exploring music as a teen in the studio he set up in his mother’s basement outside of the steel mill city of Hamilton, Ontario, a time when he was “bringing the music up right from the bottom of the ground.” He writes in Goodbye to Language’s liner notes, “The steel city never left me and my first love is still with me. My steel guitar, my little church in a suitcase.” Lanois is still following his own muse, and that’s really what we want in a serious musician in love with his craft.