Recording of May 2021: Heavy Sun

Daniel Lanois: Heavy Sun
eOne Music EMC-CD-28392 (CD). 2021. Daniel Lanois, Wayne Lorenz, prods.; Daniel Lanois, Wayne Lorenz, engs.; Noah Mintz, mastering.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Daniel Lanois may not be a household name as a solo artist, but over four decades he has gained great notoriety as a producer. After serendipitously catching Brian Eno's attention with his homespun recording projects in the late '70s, Quebec-born, Ontario-based Lanois became protégé and then partner to the ambient/pop tastemaker; together, they innovated sonic techniques and worked with such off-the-radar experimental jazz artists as soft-pedal pianist Harold Budd and fourth-world trumpeter Jon Hassell.

In 1984, Eno enlisted Lanois to coproduce U2's breakthrough The Unforgettable Fire. That was followed three years later by the same band's chart-busting Joshua Tree. Meanwhile, Lanois found favor with Peter Gabriel and produced 1986's So, Gabriel's best-selling record. "One of the things I learned with Daniel Lanois is a total respect for the magic of the moment," Gabriel has said. "When you have some spine-tingling event musically, you've got to capture it."

That same approach transformed the career of Emmylou Harris with the hard-edged, rocking 1995 hit album Wrecking Ball. Two years later, Lanois produced Time Out of Mind, a notable artistic comeback for Bob Dylan after a decade of declining popularity. The Recording Academy website says Lanois has won seven Grammy Awards and been nominated for several more.

Multi-instrumentalist Lanois also pursued a varied solo career, starting with 1989's Acadie (Opal/Warner Bros.), a folksy, atmospheric album sung in English and French. Lanois went full-tilt ambient with 2014's Flesh and Machine (ANTI-), inspired by Eno's tonal music. That same year, Lanois formed the roots combo Black Dub with vocalist Trixie Whitley, bassist Daryl Johnson, and drummer Brian Blade. His most outrageous collaboration was 2018's Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois (Timesig), an exploratory sound-clash improv with breakcore musician Venetian Snares, aka Aaron Funk. Lanois played pedal steel guitar.

With his latest project, Heavy Sun, Lanois says he's entering a "new chapter" in his search for meaningful melodies. Conceived during the darkest days of the pandemic, this 11-song album contains what may be 2021's most life-affirming music. Heavy Sun—the title comes from a song from his 2016 steel-guitar collaboration with Rocco DeLuca—puts Lanois back in the musical environment he grew up in. Back then, he was singing in a church choir in Quebec, listening to organ records, and recording touring gospel quartets in his family's basement. Heavy Sun is modern-day gospel, an Americana fusion of classic gospel, electronics, and swirling atmospherics.

Lanois's Heavy Sun Orchestra (HSO) includes himself, DeLuca, organist Johnny Shepherd, and bassist Jim Wilson, with Brian Blade on some tracks. All four main members sing, forming an intoxicating four-part gospel choir. Shepherd is the anchor on sanctuary organ and shines as the soul vocalist. He sounds like a Baptist preacher on the grooved title track "(Under the) Heavy Sun," with its clipping beats, electronica spice, and call-and-response with the choir: "Come on we're rolling down the road (It's an open road)/Can't hold us no more (With joy untold)/Ya, ya somebody dancing and somebody romancing, nothing but a joy (Heavy sun)." It's a song about freedom and spiritual longing—not your typical pop.

The songs on the album were written as a collective. Lanois mixed them with his signature touches: ear-awakening synthesizer fillips and accents, yelping voicings, sliced-guitar fills, organ shouts. The group agreed that all songs would convey a positive message. The soulful spin on "Dance On" (with a nod to the Isaac Hayes hit "Do Your Thing") ends with Shepherd counseling, "Whatever you do, don't let nobody steal your joy from you." The beat-driven anthem "Power" features falsetto vocals and chants about seeking peace and taking "a righteous stand." The cooker "Every Nation," with Lanois taking the lead, tells the story of Nova Scotia's Mi'kmaq nation seeking justice in the wake of broken treaties.

The best outing is the thumping "Tree of Tule," with a simple piano line, percussion energy, edgy organ, and spacy swirls. It's about a traveler finding solace and shelter under a tree: the ancient Árbol del Tule, a Montezuma cypress in Oaxaca, Mexico, which has the stoutest trunk in the world.

Another highlight is "Tumbling Stone," set to a carnival-organ beat. From his pulpit, Shepherd sermonizes to pilgrims seeking salvation, telling them that the goal is "to build a church with no walls"; his call is answered by amens from the choir.

With images that move from darkness to light, from broken and lost to redeemed and found, Lanois serves up heavenly sonic fruit.—Dan Ouellette

Anton's picture

I love Daniel Lanois and did not know about this release.

I am going to 'schedule' a time to sit and listen to it as a piece.

So, even though I haven't heard it yet, I thank you for the great review!

Anton's picture

I love it, Lanois' gospel album.

He is just all that.

He and Eno are a great match, atmospherics through the roof.

Thanks again for the great review.

2_channel_ears's picture

I have this cued up for a listen.

Two of his masterpieces not mentioned are are Shine and Here Is What Is. On Shine, he sings with Emmy Lou and does a great harmony with Bono. On Here Is, he plays with Brian Blade and Garth Hudson, and Eno makes an appearance. There's also a video of the whole recording affair.

Saw him in concert with Brian Blade, incredible performance. One of those when in the middle of the concert he comes out and plays solo. A night to savor.

evansrahal's picture

Thanks for the heads up.