Rolling Stone once wrote that Daniel Lanois’ “unmistakable fingerprints are all over an entire wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”, thanks in large part to his work as a producer for artists like Bob Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, The Neville Brothers, and many more. He’s also a respectable solo artist, beginning with his 1989 album Acadie. But his latest solo album, Heavy Sun, is something of a return to his youth and the music that started it all.
As a youth in Ontario, Canada, Lanois developed a love for organ records and gospel music and cut his teeth as a young adult working in studios, recording vocal quartets touring through the province. Flash-forward several decades: Lanois’ on-off gig as a guitarist for the Hallelujah Train band at the Shreveport, Louisiana-based Zion Baptist Church allowed him to witness and meet the church’s choir director, organist, and vocalist Johnny Shepherd. Adding guitarist and vocalist Rocco DeLuca on guitar and vocals, in addition to Jim Wilson on bass and vocals, the Heavy Sun Orchestra – dedicated to the fusion of gospel and Lanois’ unique brand of electronic texturing – was born.
Recorded in Los Angeles and Toronto, it’s hard to say whether or not this is a major stylistic shift for Lanois. His “genre” is historically difficult to define, as it tends to encompass a variety of styles (possibly due to the sheer variety of his collaborators). But Heavy Sun is undoubtedly his most concentrated effort to lean into the gospel sounds of his youth. While the entire quartet does amazing work all over this truly engaging album, Shepherd is the star here. His vocals purr, growl, and leap into full-throated testifying, and the organ is often the musical focal point. “Dance On” opens the album as a gospel simmer, with Shepherd leading the other vocalists through the song as atmospheric guitar and bass bubble up to the surface.
While the album tends to cling to a specific gospel-tinged mood, the songs contain a refreshing amount of variety: “Way Down” is a gorgeous ballad with an understated drum machine providing just a hint of Lanois’ penchant for electronica. Songs like “Tree of Tule” and “(Under the) Heavy Sun” are carried along by intoxicating, hip-swaying Latin beats heavy on percussion. The single “Power” is a muscular call to arms, with an insistent, low-key funk beat underlying the song’s simple yet effective battle-cry message.
But it’s when the album focuses on “church music” stylings that it really soars. “Tumbling Stone” takes the shape of a true old-school spiritual, as Shepherd’s organ is placed front and center, and he leads the choir in true exaltation. “To build a church with no walls,” they sing fervently. “True hearts that shall not fall.” Lanois and his bandmates are truly tapped into the source, and it’s a joy to witness.
While Heavy Sun was recorded shortly before the pandemic lockdown began, Lanois has said in the album’s press materials that he hopes it provides comfort in difficult times. “We want to lift people’s spirits with this music. It’s so easy to feel isolated right now, but we want everyone to feel included in what we’re doing.” Lanois and his bandmates are most definitely up to the task: Heavy Sun is an uncommonly beautiful album that promotes peace, unity, and shared love for the power of music.