‘None of it suggests Lanois is operating at the edge of anything, least of all contemporary technology‘ – Ian Maleney reviews the new album from Daniel Lanois
Daniel Lanois is always going to be better known as a producer than as a musician in his own right. Even if his client list didn’t contain some of the biggest names in the traditional rock canon (Bob Dylan, U2, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel), it’d be easy enough to understand why. Lanois is a man obsessed with sound and sound alone, a trait which makes his albums far less immediate than those of his stadium-filling peers. No one knows for sure what a producer like Lanois does in the studio, but you can hear the ear for depth, for texture, for mood, at work in every record he’s made. He’s a Canadian Brian Eno (another frequent collaborator), equally open to utilising the sounds of other cultures in pursuit of a particular atmosphere, but more concerned with the American blues, country and rock traditions. Flesh and Machine focuses on the Eno-ish ambient elements and does away with almost everything else. This is the Lanois sound taken to its logical extreme, shorn of all the rock star posturing, the belting vocals, the choruses – everything that gets in the way of the sounds breathing.
Lanois has been moving in this direction a little while now, with varying success. The soul/jazz/blues/dub contraption that was Black Dub missed the target entirely, but Neil Young’s Le Noise was closer to the mark. Both highlight Lanois’ interest in (if not mastery of) the mixing techniques of Jamaican dub music, and a somewhat reawakened appetite for highly-processed guitar evoking anew the stark primitivism of early blues. At its best, Le Noise was a dark, experimental guitar record exploring what is possible with six strings without losing sight of its monomaniacal mood – a sort of MOR Loren Connors for people who still buy Mojo. At its worst, Black Dub was bourgeois faux-eclecticism, the sound of a producer in a very expensive studio feasting on the spoils of rock’s rich tapestry. (The name didn’t endear the project either.)
One thing about Lanois is that he is always utterly uncool. Unlike Eno, who can at least hide his lack of cool behind a facade of aloof middle-Englishness, Lanois is hopelessly sincere – a trait more common across the Atlantic, and among those who’ve swapped success for self-consciousness (Bono, Peter Gabriel). Only someone completely out of touch with what’s cool could have made Black Dub, or No Line On The Horizon. This enthusiasm, the sincerity, can so easily stray into a sort of pretension, where the conviction that what one is doing is smart, progressive, even avant-garde, far exceeds the reality of the work. And so it is with Flesh and Machine. The high-points of the record are easy to spot: the double-shot of ‘Sioux Lookout’ and ‘Tamboura Jah’, two examples of perfectly twisted blues, all heavy grooves and echoing space. ‘The End’ scores highly for its relentlessness, a wash of jazzed-up noise. ‘Space Love’ is nice ambient slide guitar work that happens to sound quite similar to the KLF. All of the aforementioned tracks come on the first half of the record, with the quality dipping sharply through the second. The keyboard presets of ‘My First Love’ place the concept before its realisation, and, while ‘Opera’ comes closer to fusing flesh and machine, it still feels light, lacking a distinctive character.
For all of Lanois’ priceless gear, much of the record feels as if it could have been made in a home studio sometime in the early 90s. The chill-out room feel of the ambient work, the overt cutting and self-sampling, even the tone of the reverbs, none of it suggests Lanois is operating at the edge of anything, least of all contemporary technology. Machines might not tire in the same way as flesh, but they do age. Technology dates and here both sides of the equation feel old; old machines, and old, canonised flesh. Flesh and Machine never pushes far enough, never truly examines either side of itself in a contemporary way, never seems motivated by the (post-)human concerns of today: it’s like the internet never happened. The sound can’t escape the history that Lanois had some hand in creating, and the legacy of “serious rock music”, the ghost of it, hangs heavy around all that negative space. It’s not a bad record, but it sounds a quarter of a century old. Lanois might call it timeless, but maybe out of time would be a better fit. Flesh and Machine is trying to escape something most of us have already forgotten.