Dark and rootsy, Lanois helped Dylan shine on 'Time Out of Mind'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In a couple of days, those who haven’t already downloaded a leaked copy will be treated to Neil Young’s latest batch of tunes, cycled through the sonically rich cone of Daniel Lanois, on the curiously titled Le Noise. Lanois has become somthing of a super producer, a la Steve Lillywhite or Brendan O’Brien, which makes him an interesting choice for this artist in particular.
Young does not typically work with anyone who will have him do things like, say, try more than two takes on a song. Or, perhaps, go back and fix a mistake. Producers can be fantastic, but Young thrives in non-produced settings. His greatest producer, the late David Briggs, shared that mentality and had Young get as close to the source as possible.
But what makes Lanois an interesting choice here is that, unlike his peers, he brings a particular, Earthy touch to everything he produces. Listen to his work on U2’s finest moment, The Joshua Tree, and you’ll hear a sound that harnesses the best of the band’s extravagant sound while leaving out most of the bombast. The knock, of course, is that everything produced by Lanois sounds like it was produced by Lanois. Where does the artist’s touch end and the producer’s begin?
But, by and large, I appreciate Lanois’ work. He’s able to capture rich, sonically exciting sounds that seemingly one else attempts, or is able to find. And when word broke about a month ago that this record was on the way, I went straight to his triumph — Bob Dylan’s stunning 1997 album, Time Out of Mind.
If you cared enough to pay attention to these things, you’ll remember that in 1997 and ’98, Time Out of Mind became something of a phenomenon, a brilliant album by an iconic artist who had done his best to stay out of the spotlight, at least when it comes to new music. He toured constantly, but so does REO Speedwagon. The days of Dylan offering new genius on tape seemed long gone.
All of that changed with Time Out of Mind. With songs like “Not Dark Yet,” “Cold Iron Bound,” “Highlands” and “‘Til I Fell in Love with You,” Dylan revealed a cache that would rank with his best work. And it fueled a return to relevant recording — every proper record he’s released since that point has been, at worst, great.
Now, a producer is only as good as his source material, so here, Lanois struck gold with Dylan’s best set of songs in 20 years.
The record begins with the distant, frightening strains of an old organ before Dylan, through his raspy sing-speak, announces, “I’m walking through streets that are dead.” The vocals are front and center. As “Love Sick” unfolds, new instruments are presented, some near, some distant. A far-off steel guitar. Drums tucked away in the corner of the room. A bass lost in the back. An electric piano somewhere to the left. An electric guitar cutting the listener’s throat.
The microphones pan and swirl throughout the room, creating a haze that is at once warm and disturbing. Dylan is notorious for not having set arrangements, and much of this record was recorded live. What Lanois has done, though, is set everything up just so. Distant and close mics reflect the confusion and bitterness of the song. Dylan does 90 percent of the work here; Lanois allows the personality of the song to shine, or in this case, burn, through the speakers. It’s nothing short of brilliant, and it’s one of the greater magic tricks I’ve ever heard in a song.
This is his strength. He shines on this album, and on another Dylan gem, 1989's Oh Mercy, and it's why folks should feel free to be excited about Young’s Le Noise.
“I wanted him to understand that I've spent years dedicated to the sonics in my home,” Lanois said in a statement regarding Young’s new album, “and that I wanted to give him something he'd never heard before.”
Whether or not this collection will be any good rests on Young’s shoulders. But if he’s written some winners, he’s given himself an incredible head-start in recruiting Lanois’ sonically advanced ears.