CD Review of Here Is What Is by Daniel Lanois
Recommended if you like
Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel, U2
Label
Red Floor
Daniel Lanois: Here Is What Is

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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L
ong, long ago, in a record industry far, far away, rock & roll record producers occasionally became almost as famous as the acts who hired them (and then occasionally used that fame to become recording artists in their own right). It all started with Phil Spector and Quincy Jones – still arguably the coolest of them all – who laid the foundation for the cachet later enjoyed by producers such as Gamble & Huff, Glen Ballard, and David Foster (not to mention artist-first, producer-later examples like Don Was and Jeff Lynne).

The days when a rock producer could parlay his knob-twiddling into celebrity status might be over – you’ve got to work on hip-hop albums to earn that kind of attention now – and most of the switch-hitters seem to have retired from releasing albums under their own names. Most of them, that is, except for Daniel Lanois.

He’s never been a terribly prolific recording artist (witness the extended gap between 1993’s For the Beauty of Wynona and 2003’s Shine), and his album sales have never been terribly impressive. From a certain point of view, though, Lanois makes perfect sense as a solo artist. Like Jones and Foster, Lanois is a better producer than he is a songwriter – but more than any of his peers, he uses sound as an instrument, allowing him to obscure, or distract the listener from, defects in the material.

When Lanois came up during the ‘80s, using production gimmicks as audio sleight of hand was nothing new – but where guys like Peter Wolf and Ron Nevison were using synths to pad out and bulk up barely-written songs, Lanois fell back on more organic methods, spinning webs of reverb around sparsely furnished arrangements until the atmosphere became just as important as its environs. It was (and remains) a nifty trick, often capable of lulling the listener into thinking he’s hearing something profound – even if the song doesn’t go anywhere or say anything, it still sounds authentic.

Lanois’ aesthetic has earned him affection and scorn – in roughly equal measure – for just about a quarter of a century now, and no matter which side of the fence you’re on, Here Is What Is will likely reinforce your opinion. It’s presented as the soundtrack to his 2007 documentary of the same name, but you don’t need to have seen the film to hear the album; although it’s sprinkled with bits from the movie – primarily clips of conversations with Brian Eno – they’re exactly the sort of inscrutable sonic detritus you’d expect to find on any other Lanois release.

Lanois ostensibly made his documentary in order to provide viewers a glimpse of his creative process, but as critics repeatedly noted, the film doesn’t come close to achieving that goal; like his music, it’s slowly circuitous, occasionally hinting at great meaning, but never really getting to the heart of the matter – or even providing a rough outline of what the matter actually is. The soundtrack reflects this. Songs glide into one another, shifting from one sepia-toned aural landscape to the next, and Lanois remains ever unknowable behind the veil. As a piece of sound, it succeeds without qualification, which is why, if you’ve enjoyed Lanois’ albums in the past, you’re likely to feel the same way about Here Is What Is. As a vehicle for any sort of message, however, this set rings thoroughly hollow, which is why anyone who has accused Lanois of audio fakery will only find more fodder for that argument here. Ultimately, if you’ve got room for a swatch of flawed sonic wallpaper in your collection, make Here Is What Is your next purchase – otherwise, even Lanois fans would be well advised to save their money until he finishes working on the next U2 album with Brian Eno.

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