"Some of my favorite records take you on a journey," says Daniel Lanois. "I wanted to make a record like that, that would challenge the imagination, conjure up images and, most importantly, it would be a reliable friend -- it would take you to that place and never let you down."
Lanois' vividly cinematic new album Belladonna does take you on a journey, a journey without words. Instrumental music "can speak louder than singing," Lanois explains. "It leaves a window of opportunity for someone to use their imagination and build their own scenario. You can make your own movie."
Belladonna is also part of Lanois' own journey, which began with his early '80s apprenticeship with Brian Eno, making some of the greatest, most influential avant garde music of all time, albums like Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, Ambient 4: On Land, and Aka/Darbari/Java. After going on to produce the likes of U2, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, Lanois has made an album that assimilates all of that experience, blending his peerless gift for evocative sonic texture with the soulful mysteries of blues, folk, country and gospel. Both timeless and futuristic, Belladonna reasserts Daniel Lanois' rightful crown as king of musical inner space.
Lanois played truly ethereal pedal steel on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, the classic ambient album he made with Eno in 1983. The instruments' pure, glimmering presence on Belladonna, along with the music's wide-open spaces, lovingly recalls that earlier disc, but with a key difference: "Apollo was very wide-eyed and optimistic," says Lanois. "But these are different times and now, it's harder to believe it's all going to be roses and poetry. I never go into my music with those kinds of thoughts but you can't help but let what's going on in the world crawl under your skin."
So this is no ambient album: For all its sun-baked serenity, Belladonna is foreground music that rewards close listening; Lanois masterfully darkens the canvas with noise, dischord and uncertainty, imbuing the music with intriguing contradictions and subtle turbulence. "Telco," for instance, began as a straight guitar piece; then Lanois added effects that sounded "like divebombs and machine guns and ambulances," he says. "Then I overdubbed piano -- a lovely melody while the ambulances are taking the bodies away!"
Some tunes are studio creations, like the finale "Todos Santos," which wouldn't sound out of place on a My Bloody Valentine album. But then plenty of other songs stand as fully melodic creations, like the mariachi-flavored "Agave" or "Desert Rose," folk-derived music infused with Lanois' distinctive conception of spiritual space. While there's always a rootedness to this music there's also an otherworldly and almost troublingly modern quality, and that combination defines Daniel Lanois' unique place in the music world.
Belladonna began when Lanois sojourned in Mexico for a year, and, keen on vibing off the south-of-the-border ambiance for his next album, set up shop in the Baja Peninsula and brought in drummer Brian Blade (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell), vocalist Darryl Johnson, and an 18-wheeler full of recording equipment. Blade adds a lambent dub reggae pulse to "Frozen" and aqueous commentary on the incantatory "Sketches" (to which celebrated jazz pianist Brad Mehldau adds his own ineffably prismatic touches). And that's not a woman on "Oaxaca," it's Johnson singing in haunting falsetto.
ut it's Lanois' majestic pedal steel that redeems even the album's most troubled moments. "I like the mystery of the darkness and then the beauty represented by the steel," he says. "It gives you a glimmer of hope."