EXCLAIM.CA // 2005
Building A Mystery
The Folk Noir of Daniel Lanois
May 31, 2005
I’m parked in my parents’ driveway, the windows rolled down, listening. It’s almost 11 o’clock
on a Saturday night, and I’d rather not go inside. My mum’s not well, my dad’s not well, and there are some
days when it feels like I’m slipping right along with them. My family is breaking down.
That’s at least
part of the reason why I’m sitting in the car right now, to avoid confronting what’s going on inside. But I’d
like to think there’s another reason, too, one that has everything to do with the sounds around me. There’s the
night, for one, a grand symphony of cricket calls and the low-level thrum of the distant freeway, and then there’s Daniel
Lanois conjuring the subtly modulating pulses that conclude his masterful new album, Belladonna. The track, entitled “Todos
Santos,” does not so much evoke as utterly embody the way I’m feeling right now — it depicts the paralysing
anxiety that roots me to this seat.
This highly personal reading has everything to do with how I’m feeling right
now — and what critical position is free from that bias? — as does the following: there will be no better Canadian-made
album this year than Belladonna, a spectral creation that finds Lanois circling back to his ’80s-era Ambient ventures
with Brian Eno. Unlike those albums — which act as benchmarks against which all subsequent ambient recordings must be
judged — the producer’s newest effort is not ambient in the strictest sense. Marked most prominently by Lanois’s
pedal steel work, Belladonna is far too turbulent to be called ambient; for the past few weeks, I’ve been calling it
Of course, Lanois is no stranger to mystical folk; his previous solo albums (especially 1989’s Acadie
and 2003’s Shine) verged on the sublime, and his work with singers like Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan has lent an air
of divinity to their wizened voices. So while it might be an overstatement to call Belladonna a career high point, it is in
some ways the most mysterious of his albums, one that yields equal rewards to both the attentive and distracted listener.
paying close attention will be lured in by the poignant melodies, most of them supplied by Lanois’s sure hands, picking
and bending ethereal chords from his pedal steel. On this count, “Panorama” is a particular favourite, an unadorned
solo piece in which the guitar’s unmistakably lustrous tones are knotted around each other, wispy metal ribbons bound
together and sparkling under moonlight.
Beneath those tender melodies, the alert listener will unearth all manner of
textural wonders, especially on “Sketches,” the producer’s collaboration with drummer Brian Blade and pianist
Brad Mehldau. It goes without saying that these players have chops to spare, but their work on “Sketches” is notable
mostly for its restraint — Blade spends the bulk of his time tickling the cymbals while Mehldau cascades weightlessly
over the ivories, both as if tiptoeing up the listener’s tingling spine.
From beginning to end, Belladonna is
a hypnotic late-night affair and as such I’ve found it excellent bedtime accompaniment. If Eno has his Music for Airports,
this is Lanois’s Music for Restless Nights, an excellent soundtrack for staring at my bedroom ceiling. This album’s
put me to sleep a few times, and I can only hope that its creator accepts that as a compliment, for it is the record’s
dual nature — its ability to reside just as suitably in the foreground as in the background — that so astounds
There are albums I have obsessed over in the past because I identified with their narrators; I am thinking in particular
of the Verve’s A Northern Soul and Radiohead’s The Bends, a pair of melodramatic 1995 releases that endorsed my
adolescent misery. While I won’t ever fully disavow those albums (if I did I’d effectively be renouncing my younger
self) I can’t help but hold them at some distance now; they’re like old photos I hold onto but never look at.
Maybe because Belladonna is instrumental or maybe just because it’s more emotionally ambiguous — there’s
just as much light as dark on this album — I doubt it will ever suffer the same fate as those old Britrock LPs. As for
right now, the solace it’s providing me is priceless.