Get this: Talking is not only overrated, but in this post-modern global collage of cell phones, instant messengers, and fragmented, newfangled slang dialects, words just don’t cut it. Yackety-yak don’t talk back. Babbling about incessantly as we do—almost always saying nothing at all—the pace of our lives has reduced the English language to near-stupefying levels of superficiality. And, if this is true of everyday conversation, it has certainly infected music. So let us cast off this burden of words in music. Electronica did it. Instrumental hip-hop mounted an instrumental rebellion. There are plenty of things left to say and Daniel Lanois has found a way to say them without words.
Belladonna begins with its head underwater, submerged and held down by Lanois on the “Two Worlds”. Unable to breathe, let alone speak, the mind and body recoil. Below the surface where murky waters obscure the landscape, he urges you to unleash the untapped geyser of your imagination. There and only there, in the absence of words, gorging on images, do we brush up against the beauty that is seldom seen but often heard. By the second track, “Sketches”, your muscles surrender, breathing slows and air bubbles scurry to the surface. Early on, Lanois proves to be a master of navigating ambient nuances.
As the journey progresses, Lanois controls the current, introducing swirling layers of tension. His melodies sway like underwater vegetation in every Jacques Cousteau 2000 Leagues film you don’t have to see to imagine, underpinning what he’s done, which is to score the album by stealing the rhythm of the sea. Venturing closer to the surface, he hymn-like “Oaxaca”, where the sun penetrates the water, engaged in a slow, deliberate dance that echoes in the soul.
Lanois is a malcontent, unwilling to stick with one formula he docks this album in Mexican shores on “Agave”. Horns cry out, muffled by the ocean’s indifference, during the short (1:58) mariachi funeral number. Most of album is in fact tinged with Mexican rhythms and upon flipping the press release over and reading the reverse side, I discover the album was born during a year-long “sojourn” in Mexico. There Lanois found solace, bringing in drummer Brian Blade (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell), vocalist Darryl Johnson, who reaches up from the ocean floor to lends his voice to the siren song “Oaxaca”, to record Belladonna—a poisonous and deadly Eurasian herb, in case you wondered.
One thing I should mention (ripped right from the press release) is that it is Lanois’ “majestic pedal steel that redeems even the album’s most troubled moments.” It radiates, as he says, “a glimmer of hope,” which, though tough to grasp, is all you have when you’re drowning in mystery’s misery.
Of all my favourite things to do as a teen, one was to dunk my head underwater and hold it there for as long as possible. In doing so, I not only tested my willpower but also my desire to live. I am not so full of hyperbole and bullshit to suggest that’s what’s happening on Belladonna but it is. And by the time your raise your head from “Todas Santos”, gasping for air and drenched by the experience of Lanois’ journey, you’ll realize I’m full of shit for trying to write (what I already told you) words cannot say.