First and foremost, Talkhouse Contributing Writer Liam Wilson is a good vibe technician. He’s known to moonlight as an avid psychonaut and enjoys occasional visits with his worldly possessions in Philadelphia. He spends most of his time wandering Earth in an endless pursuit of a clearer understanding of all things bass-frequency related with his band the Dillinger Escape Plan. Follow him on: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
A few months ago, a good friend of mine asked me if I had ever heard of Daniel Lanois, and specifically his 2005 album Belladonna.
When I responded with an embarrassed and hesitant “mmmmmmm… NO,” because I like to think I know it all, I got the briefing: Lanois is a Canadian-born songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who is best known for his work as a producer, mixer and engineer. Most notably, he co-produced Bob Dylan’s comeback album Time Out of Mind (1997), which won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and U2’s The Joshua Tree (1987), which he co-produced with mentor-collaborator Brian Eno, and which also won the Grammy for Album of the Year. He’s also been the sole producer of major works for artists such as Peter Gabriel, the Neville Brothers, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Sinead O’Connor and even Raffi. The list goes on and on. And when he finds the time, he also makes his own albums. Sometimes they’re (mostly) instrumental, and sometimes not. (His debut, 1989’s Acadie, even featured him singing in English and French.)
I realized this guy is a living legend and that my initial answer to my friend’s question wasn’t quite true. Maybe I hadn’t “heard of” Lanois but I had certainly heard his work — I just didn’t know I was listening to him. Now that I understand who he is, his latest gift to fan-kind, Flesh and Machine, has quickly become the mother of all earworms to me.
Daniel Lanois is a storyteller capable of interbreeding obtuse oscillations into unique, Doctor Moreau-esque species of sound. He’s equally anthropomorphic in the way he talks about his studio gear: each component having a position, a job to do, a story to tell. In one behind-the-scenes interview, he talks about having a song “on the burner,” and in another he talks about the steel guitars coming back into the forefront of the mix “to lead us home.” He’s a self-proclaimed “performance mixer,” in that his mixing console is no less an instrument than, say, his piano. So it’s no wonder he’s able to create a living mythology with such an animistic approach to his surroundings. Even the common mixing term “riding the faders” seems to evoke a different kind of imagery for me when discussing Lanois’ creative process.
I get the sense that his poetically simple song titles (“Iceland,” “Opera,” “Aquatic”) all have a very direct correlation to very specific people, places and things. But even without lyrics, everything on Flesh and Machine speaks for itself. Both the songs and their titles display only the purest essence of shape and movement; Lanois banishes all ornamentation, designing an aural architecture that would make Ayn Rand blush. Every composition is an impressionistic picture worth more than a thousand words, akin to one of Constantin Brâncusi’s “Fish” sculptures cleverly caught in the morphogenetic ether, instinctively given a name and released back into empyrean waters.
“Sioux Lookout” has an indigenous bounce to its smoke signal-y pulse. Despite the lack of lead vocals on this album, there are certainly some noises that hold space in that register, such as heavily processed vocal and pedal steel samples tweaked to give them that singing quality. Or at least, that’s what I think they are, and on this track they have an almost chanting and ritualistic tribal cadence.
The first track, and perhaps the most intimate song on the album, “Rocco,” is most likely a loving nod to friend and solo musician Rocco DeLuca, and “The End” is Flesh and Machine at its most apocalyptically turbulent and gloriously overloaded. If “Rocco” is an amuse-bouche, “The End” is the flambéed main course, elegantly seasoned with all the production spices in Lanois’ cabinet of wonder.
As my ears adjust to the blackness that is “Space Love,” celestial bodies percolate, constellations sing in a shower of radiation while my imagination is sucked out of its own atmosphere, caught in the riptide of anti-gravity, and sent on a blind date with an all-absorbing dark matter. This is the soundtrack to a siren-song sense of danger and annihilation, an oxygen-depleting tale of rapture gone wrong, feelings of weightlessness become increasingly more urgent, tragic and solitary.
When I first introduced myself to this album, it was on my car’s stock stereo, and the more classically ambient songs like “Forest City” and “Two Bushas” didn’t grab me as quickly as the rest. Later, when I was able to experience Flesh and Machine through a nice pair of headphones, it was as if the album had decanted itself, and all the songs, especially these two, blossomed like a fine rosé. I had to look up what a “busha” is, and what I came up with was that it’s probably a slang term for “grandmother.” Consequently, as this track plays, it fills me with sentimental memories of both of mine.
The most domesticated and thematically streamlined track is the almost sarcastic doo-wop-y arrangement “My First Love.” I picture Lanois sitting at his console, high on Quaaludes, wearing Phil Spector’s wig and a shit-eating grin. On both that song and the more uptempo “Opera,” the layering and lemnescate panning of the high-hats and masterfully subtle shifts in the bass register keep these spirited affairs swinging in estrus.
When listening to this album, I’m reminded of a Lester Bangs quote: “They’re events you remember all your life, like your first real orgasm. And the whole purpose of the absurd, mechanically persistent involvement with recorded music is the pursuit of that priceless moment. So it’s not exactly that records might unhinge the mind, but rather that if anything is going to drive you up the wall it might as well be a record.”
Flesh and Machine is a towering monument to sensitivity over showmanship. Daniel Lanois’ capacity to communicate a feeling far surpasses his ability to simply show off his artisanal skills. It’s not just that I enjoy the way these songs sound, it’s that these visceral vignettes make me feel good, or at least feel something on an emotional level when most music just makes me think too much — usually about why I don’t like it. It’s rare when I can say, “I’ve never heard anything like this before” about an album and mean it. This is one of those times.