Here Is What Is

Uber-producer makes sublime soundtrack to documentary film

Daniel Lanois listens for a living. As a producer (Dylan, Emmylou, U2, Eno, Peter Gabriel, The Nevilles, Robbie Robertson, Willie Nelson, Luscious Jackson) he’s like one of those Native American operatives with uncanny abilities hired by the army to interpret codes, memes and sonic hieroglyphics only dogs and ghosts can hear. His own solo records have gone largely undertrumpeted, but diligently and without fuss he’s built up a formidable body of work, beginning with 1989’s Acadie, culminating in the classic Belladonna in 2005, a record that deserved to sit between Ry Cooder and A Silver Mt Zion for its visionary melding of roots music with space-aged pedal steel.

This is effectively the soundtrack to Lanois’s Here Is What Is documentary, and while it’s a hair short of the quiet magnificence of that last record, it’s nevertheless a beauty. The album proper begins with a gentler take on ‘Where Will I Be’, the stunning opener from Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball, followed by the majestic waltz of the title tune. Lanois is a pleasant rather than persuasive singer whose phrasing echoes his clients Gabriel, Nelson and Dylan, but cosmic country songs like ‘Not Fighting Anymore’, ‘Harry’ and ‘I Like That’ are persistent slow burners laden with rich atmospheres.

Elsewhere, ‘Moondog’, ‘Bladesteel’ and ‘Luna Samba’ distill Lanois’s love of New Orleans bottom end, Trenchtown dub and pastoral Hendrix, filtered through virtuoso drummer Brian Blade’s adoration of the jazz magi, specifically Elvin Jones. At its most subtle, Here Is What Is conjures nocturnal desert ambience (‘Blue Bus’), at its most most turbulent it evokes that lost ark of the covenant, the fabled and, as far as we know, mythical tapes of Jimi jamming with Miles circa In A Silent Way. I’ve no higher praise than that.


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South by Southwest indeed. Belladonna was conceived when Lanois made a sojourn to Mexico last year, but while the music herein is undoubtedly derived from a border state of mind (the sundown mariachi elegy of ‘Agave’ being a sort of musical equivalent of Marquez’s In Evil Hour), it’s also capable of migrating through various time zones.

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