Best known for his seminal production work with such artists as Brian Eno, U2, Bob Dylan, Sinéad O’Connor, and Emmylou Harris, as well as his film score for 1996’s Sling Blade, Daniel Lanois has also explored a variety of musical approaches over the course of numerous solo and collaborative endeavors. His latest album, Heavy Sun, blends his artistic appreciation for diverse genres with his virtuosity as a project helmsman, resulting in an album that sounds ambitiously produced and organically performed. Heavy Sun’s instrumental and vocal palimpsests, splices, and edits seamlessly and paradoxically enhance Lanois’ purist intent.
The album opens with “Dance On,” a Leslie-esque keyboard conjuring an engaging funk tempo and gospel uplift. Tenor and alto voices are harmonized and appropriately panned, yielding an ebullient track that encourages each listener to pursue her or his chosen path (“don’t let nobody steal your joy from you”). “Power” features a spacious yet intricate brew of jazzy percussion, a bouncy bass, and synth-y melodies. “People got the power,” the blended low- and higher-pitched voices sing, a melodically supple, dance-y, and quintessentially feel-good track.
The layered vocals and easy-listening melody of “Way Down” brings to mind Journey’s 1978 hit “Lights.” “Beyond betrayal and trouble of every kind / … beyond the reaches of time,” Lanois sings, encouraging worldly transcendence and spiritual freedom, a message complemented by fluid melodies and euphonic instrumentation. “Please Don’t Try” is a keyboard-heavy and R&B-infused track reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s early and mid-’70s progressive soul-and-pop albums. “Tree of Tule” opens with a driving motif that resembles the central riff from the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It),” quickly segueing into a suave and easy-gospel vibe replete with ear-catching accents.
“Angel’s Watching” makes stellar use of gospel inflections, a semi-psychedelic atmosphere, and hook-y guitars and synths. A grounded bass part contrasts effectively with the etheric drift of the piece. “Mother’s Eyes” is a tribute to the singer’s maternal figure and a message of gratitude to God and/or the universe: “Glad I have a mother still alive / … you gave her life to let her live on.” The piece also serves as an understated plea for humanity to acknowledge how so-called progress has led to the desecration of nature: “If the world could only see through a mother’s eyes.” On “Out of Sight,” the album’s closer, a chorus of voices offers, “Day by day the world keeps on testing / against the night I count my blessings,” a reminder that while life on planet earth can be arduous, we are often provided what we need to endure.
Heavy Sun’s thematic and energetic gestalt is one of positivity, listeners encouraged to shed their burdens, even if temporarily, and remain true to their calling, whatever that may be. Also, Lanois’ skills as a producer are undeniably evident, though never intrusive, each vocal and instrumental part meticulously placed and mixed, the project as a whole often occurring as a complex yet elegantly accessible work of musical architecture. Heavy Sun is a broad-brush celebration of existence and art; it’s also a testimony to a career spent crafting subtleties, how a project’s details can make all the difference.