Put the western strains of a steel guitar in the midst of an ambient soundscape inspired by Brian Eno and you might have the soundtrack to a Cormac McCarthy novel. If you had to categorize this selection of spare and spacious instrumentals, you could call it Country & Existential.
The album’s liner credits are even more minimal than the music. There’s a photo of a musician — presumably the artist-producer, though faceless — behind a steel guitar, with three names in boldface beneath: Daniel Lanois, Brian Blade and Daryl Johnson, followed by a list of others including jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and Lanois’ frequent studio co-conspirator Malcolm Burn. No indication of who plays what, or even what instruments might be employed to create the shimmering progressions and almost subliminal undertones of these thirteen tracks.
As with Eno’s ambient albums from a couple decades ago, when he and Lanois began working together (a partnership that has continued through the production of a number of U2 albums), this is music divorced from typical notions of ego, identity and virtuosity. The sound almost seems to be generating itself.
Results range from the stringed pointillism of “Deadly Nightshade” to the Miles Davis atmospherics of “Agave” to the country equivalent of dub reggae on “Frozen”. The gorgeous “Sketches” establishes a guitar repetition over a percussion of butterfly kisses before resolving itself with a cascade of waterfall piano. Lasting more than four minutes, it’s twice as long as most of the other tracks, but it could have extended itself into infinity.