Mysterious pedal steel, extraordinary songwriting, and the best goddamn drummer in the world. What it is.
Opening with a bit of postmodern storytelling worthy of Paul Auster, Here is What is announces its poetic intentions immediately: “If I just followed the message of this little set of drawers,” explains the terribly British voice of Brian Eno, referring to a recently purchased Indian chest, “then that would be a new life.” If we allow coincidence, luck, and fate their dominion, what then? What of the random, meaningless accident? What if we took all that random noise for signs and wonders?
Daniel Lanois was a legend almost upon his spectacular emergence on the scene in the 1980s. After announcing his presence as co-producer (with Brian Eno) of the ascending supernova that was U2, and then as helmsman for Robbie Robertson’s self-titled solo record, Peter Gabriel’s astoundingly successful So, and his own excellent Acadie, by 1989 (when he was producing Bob Dylan’s comeback masterpiece Oh Mercy) Lanois was the most sought-after knob-turner since George Martin. His deep respect for atmosphere, his appreciation of space and depth, and his masterful approach to rhythm, all conspired to make his the most unique hand in the business. Unlike so many hundreds of producers of popular music, you can hear something he produced and actually recognize that it was his work. He has managed to establish that most elusive of all things: a signature.
Last year’s autobiographical documentary film (also titled “Here is What is”) explored the varied history and life of this signature. And this record, a companion to the film (but a fully-formed work of art in its own right), furthers the study. Interspersing bits of disconnected dialogue with gorgeously-recorded music, the record is a dreamy auditory experience, a stare-at-the-speakers-and-flow album. Although all of this is undoubtedly anchored by Lanois, the collaboration of his longtime sidemen and friends (including Eno, Garth Hudson, and Brian Blade) is both subtle and transcendent. On one of many standout tracks, the jammy “Duo Glide”, as Lanois’ cinematic pedal steel drifts around the room, all echoes and lonely moans, Blade’s astoundingly intuitive drumming brings light unto the dark. Lanois reminds us just how important it is to have an ear for such nuance.
Hagiographical aside: (It is impossible to overstate the genius that is Brian Blade. And, if you need any proof, any immediate assurance that this is the best, most powerful, most exciting, most intelligent, most musical drummer since Elvin Jones, here is what is: play the first 12 bars of Lanois’ great composition “Where Will I Be” from Emmylou Harris’ 1995 Wrecking Ball album. Then, play the opening 12 bars of the version of the same song on Here is What is. Both feature Blade on the drums, both feature standout, song-defining beats, and both boast completely different rhythmic approaches. Between these 24 bars, you will understand, as Lanois clearly does, that Blade is a world-beater.)
Throughout Here is What is, Lanois’ fifth, and best, record, we hear reverberations of the past, and meditations on the future. For example, songs (such as “Where Will I Be”) that have been kicking around for a decade finally make their appearance (Lanois refers to such tracks as comprising his “orphanage”). But Lanois is here experimenting with the telling of his life, with the presentation of the necessary bits, the salient asides. Indeed, this is no Journey Through the Past, no longing for another shot at some lost history: for a Canadian, he betrays almost nothing of his northern heritage, positioning his allusions closer to the deep south where he now makes his home. Indeed, not Lanois’ but Blade’s father, a popular minister back in Shreveport, Louisiana, makes a guest appearance on a rousing take on “This May Be The Last Time”, a sort of mash-up of the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, and every Gospel tradition you can name. Lanois writes of the “Bells of Oaxaca”, not old Montréal.
Has he followed the new story taught by that chest of drawers? Has he followed the new life set out by chance, by a random purchase, a happy accident, a road taken on the flip of a coin? “Here is what is”, he sings on the lovely title track. “Don’t you go walking too long in the dark.” Let us accept our fates, then. Look around and see that it is good. There is beauty, everywhere.