5 Albums: Daniel Lanois
Original Story by Don Morgan (2017-03-20)
U2Songs’ celebration of #U2JT30 and the studio team that brought the album to life continues with one-half of the “dynamic duo” that produced it, Daniel Lanois. At the time of The Unforgettable Fire, Lanois was considered something of an Eno protege, but by the time The Joshua Tree became a hit, he had come into his own. Although the five albums listed below all fall into roughly a decade-long window from 1986 to 1995, Lanois’ impact continues to this day. He has produced albums for Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, The Killers, Brian Blade, and many more, and has released both instrumental and vocal albums under his own name including For the Beauty of Winona, the Sling Blade soundtrack, Shine, the Omni series, and Goodbye to Language. Rolling Stone magazine called Lanois “the most important record producer to emerge in the Eighties.”
When it comes to U2, The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree were just the beginning of Lanois’ long relationship with the band. His name also graces the credits of Rattle and Hum, Achtung Baby, Zooropa, the Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and No Line on the Horizon.
Whether as producer or performer, here are five Lanois releases outside the U2 universe that remind us why we love Danny so much:
Although his name had appeared on several collaborations with Brian Eno in the mid-80s, 1989’s Acadie is Daniel Lanois’ first true solo album—and what a debut! The songs are largely quiet and contemplative, drawing on Lanois’ Quebecois heritage as well as the cross-cultural flavors of New Orleans, where much of the album was recorded. Lanois sings and plays various instruments and is joined on various tracks by Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton, along with Brian Eno, the Neville Brothers, and Malcolm Burn (himself a Lanois protege who would go on to produce numerous acclaimed albums), among others. Four songs from Acadie were released as either commercial or promo singles, with a few containing outtakes or live tracks. The album was re-released independently by Lanois in 2005 with different cover art. However, the original Warner Bros/Opal release from 1989 is worth tracking down for Lanois’ brief track-by-track commentary in the liner notes. In addition, a “Gold Top Edition” of Acadie was released in 2008, featuring new artwork, an expanded booklet of photos and commentary from Lanois, and six previously unreleased demos and early versions of songs from the album.
This 1986 release launched Gabriel’s career into the stratosphere on the strength of hit singles “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time,” along with their innovative music videos. Incredibly, six of the album’s eight songs (the 9th track “This is the Picture” was initially a CD/cassette bonus track) were released as either commercial or promo singles, with “In Your Eyes” becoming one of the most iconic anthems of the 1980s after being featured in Cameron Crowe’s movie Say Anything. So was recorded throughout most of 1985 and was technically Lanois’ second project with Gabriel following the Birdy soundtrack album, which was largely comprised of instrumental re-workings of some of Gabriel’s earlier songs. 1985 was a very fertile year for Lanois and Gabriel, as it was apparently during this time that they also collaborated on an attempted single mix of U2’s “A Sort of Homecoming,” which featured extensive vocal contributions from Gabriel himself. In the end, this mix would remain in the vaults until 2009, when it was included with the bonus material for the anniversary edition of The Unforgettable Fire. Peter Gabriel would self-produce his next album, 1989’s instrumental Passion, the debut release for Realworld Records, but Lanois would return for Gabriel’s next “pop” album, 1992’s Us. For a deeper dive into So, seek out the 2012 “Immersion” box set, which includes a disc of “DNA” versions of every song, tracking the sessions with Lanois from their earliest sketches and demos to finished form.
Robbie Robertson/Robbie Robertson
This 1987 solo debut from the former lead singer of The Band is a favorite with U2 fans not only because of the Lanois connection, but because it is closely tied to the recording of The Joshua Tree. Lanois began recording with Robertson in 1986 before relocating to Europe to work first with Peter Gabriel (on So) and then with U2 and Eno (on The Joshua Tree). Perhaps growing impatient, Robertson traveled to Danesmoate, where the U2 sessions were underway. The band collaborated with him on two tracks, “Testimony” and “Sweet Fire of Love,” both of which were highlights of his solo album when it was finally released the following year. Lanois’ production adds a contemporary, modern-rock sheen to the tracks, especially on the fiery first single “Showdown at Big Sky” (featuring The BoDeans) and on the contemplative “Fallen Angel” (with keyboards and backing vocals courtesy of Peter Gabriel). Robbie Robertson was nominated for a Grammy award and received almost universal praise from critics. It also won “Album of the Year” and “Producer of the Year” accolades for Lanois and Robertson at the Juno Awards. As evidence of the album’s enduring appeal, a new mix of “Testimony,” one of Robertson’s collaborations with U2, was the title track on a career-spanning compilation in 2016.
The Neville Brothers/Yellow Moon
As the 80s drew to a close, the Neville Brothers needed a musical shot in the arm. Their self-titled debut and its follow-up Fiyo on the Bayou were reasonably well-received, but 1987’s Uptown was a flop, dismissed by one critic as “deplorably unlistenable.” Daniel Lanois helped them get their mojo back and deliver what most consider the best album of their career, 1989’s majestic Yellow Moon. Sonically and spiritually, the album was such a revelation that the same critic who trashed Uptown showered Yellow Moon with effusive praise: “It’s impossible to pick a favorite cut here—every selection is almost perfectly realized, and there’s not a low point to be found.” The magic begins with the gorgeous opening track “My Blood” and continues through a diverse selection of original songs and carefully selected covers, including Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (to which Brian Eno contributes keyboards) and two classic Bob Dylan compositions. With a warm, organic ambience that would somehow work on both a low-watt bayou FM outlet and big city Top 40 radio, Yellow Moon is one of Lanois’ most interesting productions.
Emmylou Harris/Wrecking Ball
With a long and storied history in the country and folk genres, Emmylou Harris’s career didn’t need “rejuvenating.” Nevertheless, this 1995 album, produced by Daniel Lanois and recorded in New Orleans, did just that. With a sound that would be more at home on college or alternative rock radio, Wrecking Ball was a major hit for Harris. It received nearly unanimous critical acclaim, won the 1996 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, and compelled roots music magazine No Depression to rave: “[Lanois] recrafts Harris’ entire style and turns her voice into an ethereal, haunting cry in the night, if you will, and in doing so creates one of the most notable records of the year.” In addition to producing, Lanois also sings and plays guitar, mandolin, bass, dulcimer, and percussion on various tracks. In the liner notes Harris thanks him for producing the album “with his hands in everything and on everybody.” Other participants include Neil Young (who also wrote the title track), Steve Earle, Malcolm Burn (who would produce Harris’s next two studio albums), and Larry Mullen, Jr., who plays drums on almost every song. A deluxe edition of the album was released in 2014 and is well worth seeking out. It adds a second disc of 13 demos, early versions, and outtakes (several of which also feature Larry), along with a DVD on the making of the album. Production-wise, Wrecking Ball might well be Danny Lanois’ crowning achievement. It’s that good.