Show business can do funny things to a person’s self-awareness. For most trying to enter its gilded halls, it does little but crush and embitter, its precious treasures forever dangled just out of reach. The select few able to enjoy life on the inside are often cursed, too, albeit in a very different way. Rather than esteeming themselves too lightly, they think acknowledged prowess within their tiny realm translates into absolute omnipotence. “People think I’m a great actor,” read the thought bubble above the head of Billy Bob Thornton. “I also got to have sex with Angelina Jolie. Therefore, I must be able to make it as a recording artist.” Of course, it’s this line of thinking that gives many a showbiz emperor his new clothes.
And then there’s Daniel Lanois. As a producer, his biggest strength may very well be his ability to be in the right place at the right time. Having attached himself to U2 just as they were about to begin their meteoric ascent, he helped catapult Peter Gabriel into the big time and assist Bob Dylan with not one but two albums universally declared his best since Blood on the Tracks. Even if he weren’t a hugely talented producer, he would certainly look like one of the most stylish. It barely even sounds like hyperbole to say that Lanois is the most important producer since Phil Spector.
Still, being a great producer does not instantly translate into being a great solo artist. The very notion of such a move conjures images of superstar hubris about to go horribly awry. Lanois’s track record, though, indicates something very different. From his merely occasional output to his low-key recordings, Lanois comes across as nothing if not humble. His latest disc, Shine, comes a decade after his last and arrives with almost no fanfare. With his industry connections, he could have surely called out the big guns both in terms of publicity and A-list contributors, but only his friends Bono and Emmylou Harris dropped by to add their talents. Bono’s track, “Falling at Your Feet,” does sound too much like a U2 B-side for its own good, but rather than dragging the album down, it helps illustrate Lanois’s singular musical personality, one that has hung around in the background of other people’s albums without drawing much attention to itself.
Lanois is deeply interested in the concepts of open space and murk. With such fascinations, it’s no wonder why he makes such a good producer, but listening to Shine provides a good idea of how his approach is meant to work. He hangs notes out in space to see how they stand on their own. He wants his listeners to hear how the small elements that normally get buried beneath layers of clatter sound on their own, how they appear and how they decay. Rather than presenting them in pristine settings, he covers everything up and offers only hazy glances. Lanois’s music works through the power of suggestion. The creative process involved in one of his records is not between himself and his fellow musicians but between himself and his listeners. He may draw the sketchy outlines, but he leaves it up to his audience to fill in the details.
Such a description doesn’t really go beyond what could’ve been gleaned from his production jobs, and of course, the success or failure of this or any other record lies in larger part with its songs than its sound. Luckily for Lanois, he happens to have a fine muse, one very sympathetic to his signature aesthetic. He’s much too quiet and intricate to ever seize a great deal of attention, and Shine runs the risk of being lumped in with adult-contemporary slush with its gentleness, but even half-hearted listens to the better tracks here show more than enough substance to elude such a crass categorization. “As Tears Roll By” stands out especially. Using a Charley Patton guitar loop, Lanois manages to show how the past and present can combine into something that benefits both without an ounce of disrespect towards either. Even if he hadn’t surrounded it with another 12 good cuts, this accomplishment would merit more praise than what most people deserve for entire albums.