When Daniel Lanois released Goodbye to Language last year, he brought background to foreground. He made a full-length album flush with the gentle, rootsy, sing-song ambience that had informed decades of high-profile production work he’d done for the likes of Bob Dylan and U2, among others, and in turn connected that work back to his early ambient recordings with Brian Eno, notably Ambient 4: On Land and Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks.
Goodbye to Language was easily one of the finest electronic albums of 2016, and also of Lanois’ extensive career. The mix of guitar, pedal steel, and various electronic processing techniques yielded a classic ambient record, which is to say one that is just as beautiful played loud as it is at low, wallpaper-music levels.
The resulting question was, what comes next? Because what comes next will further define what Goodbye to Language was all about. On the one hand, the album can be read as a standalone recording, like Lou Reed’s Hudson River Wind Meditations or Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, records that (to varying degrees) bear little resemblance to the majority of the artists’ broader catalog of work. On the other, it could be considered a formal statement of where Lanois is headed.
The videos that surfaced with Goodbye to Language put Lanois front and center in a way that he’s not always presented himself. He’s often been more comfortable as an éminence grise, the figure behind the curtain, or when on stage quite close to the curtain. Take for example Black Dub, the band he put together with Daryl Johnson on bass, Trixie Whitley on vocals, and Brian Blade on drums. Anyone unfamiliar with Lanois wouldn’t necessarily get his centrality to the band’s existence while watching them play; in the video for the band’s “Nomad,” the camera spends considerable time on Blade’s drumming during Lanois’ understated guitar solo. Which isn’t to say he hasn’t had his share of singer-songwriter outings over the years. However, what makes Goodbye to Language so powerful is how he puts himself out there without saying a word. There’s no lead-singer swagger, no folk-circuit storytelling. There’s simply gorgeous sound.
Over the past few weeks, it’s become clear that Lanois has no plans to leave that gorgeous sound behind. Three weeks ago he posted a pair of live videos of alternate versions of two tracks off Goodbye to Language, intimate fish-eye “basement mix” takes recorded in his Toronto studio. They’re the first two tracks off the album, “Low Sudden” and “Time On,” so perhaps he’s going to revisit the full set. Better yet, today he posted “Night,” a murky live performance video of him in collaboration with a fellow plugged-in Canadian, the electronica figure Venetian Snares (aka Aaron Funk), an old-school drum’n’bass character with an extensive discography of albums, EPs, and remixes. The video begins with nearly three minutes of Lanois piping his guitar into looping, glistening fragments. And then the beat arrives.
The video provides premonitions as Funk’s role, as he begins fiddling with his battery of synth equipment. He appears with a mid-tempo barrage of rhythmic exertion. On the one hand it’s everything Lanois’ music isn’t; on the other, Funk’s focus on beat for beat’s sake closely parallels Lanois’ own attention to tone. They are both polar opposites and consummate peers. Funk’s beats proceed to fill Lanois’ space, and to frame it, at time dropping out to lend focus to the guitarist’s presence. Here’s to hoping there are more such collaborations to come. If Lanois is sticking to Canadians, I’ll put my vote in for Loscil, Kid Koala, and Sarah Davachi. (According to the Venetian Snares account on Twitter, this is an outtake from an album they’re making together.)
“Night” video originally posted on Daniel Lanois’ YouTube channel. Be sure to check out the channel of the label Anti-, which released Goodbye to Language, for additional Lanois material. Thanks to Steve Ashby for having brought this to my attention. It was filmed by Sébastien Leblant.