Daniel Lanois Surprises with Fusion of Gospel and Ambient Sounds on ‘Heavy Sun’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Daniel Lanois may be more famous for his production of outstanding records from U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and Willie Nelson than for his own solo work, some of which is equally outstanding. Consider Acadie, For the Beauty of Wynona, and Shine. Yet, if you’re expecting this new release, Heavy Sun, to sound like any of those, you’ll be rather stunned at this curveball that Lanois sends our way. Maybe you’ve already heard the single which one publication dubbed “space-gospel vibe.” Yes, Heavy Sun is primarily a gospel record. That, to many, is the surprising part. Of course, terms like spacey, atmospheric, and ambient are part and parcel of Lanois’s trademark sound and you do hear traces of that here. He can be immensely versatile and can easily reinvent himself, perhaps never as radically as he appears on this project.  But, to him, this sound is closer to his roots than anything he has ever done.

Lanois grew up on organ records and gospel music, and he cut his teeth as a young man in the studio recording vocal quartets touring their way through Ontario. Hence, his love of soul and roots music never left. Recorded in Los Angeles and Toronto, Heavy Sun fuses classic gospel and modern electronics, mixing gritty, human textures with crisp, digital accents and lush, swirling atmospherics to create a sound that reads between familiar and unexpected. The arrangements here are spacious and dreamy, anchored by rich, righteous organ topped with airy falsetto and mesmerizing four-part harmony. Belying his sometimes-bleak persona, the writing here is buoyant and soulful – geared in every way to offer hope. “We want to lift people’s spirits with this music,” says Lanois. “It’s so easy to feel isolated right now, but we want everyone to feel included in what we’re doing.”

Lanois and his bandmates, just a simple quartet, produce a huge, engulfing sound. As such, he dubs the unit an “orchestra,” consisting of guitarist/vocalist Rocco DeLuca, organist/vocalist Johnny Shepherd, and bassist/vocalist Jim Wilson.  Lanois, also sings and plays guitar in addition to, of course, produces the album. Some tracks, like the opening “Dance On” begin with Shepherd alone on the organ, taking the rest of the group to church the way he did for years at Zion Baptist in Shreveport, LA. Others, like “Power,” are more focused almost exclusively on group harmony with little instrumentation. On the meaning behind “Power” Lanois writes: “I didn’t think there was much to say about a song with such a simple message.  But just yesterday I got a message from Eno asking me to sign a petition about injustices in Uganda.  Apparently, a dictatorship operating under the guise of democracy.  The clouds broke and the gods of reason spoke, ‘No Time To Rest’, by Uganda or otherwise.”

Others such as “Every Nation” have a melody or a simple groove played on a vintage beatbox. While Lanois dug deep into the production work, carving up raw material and extracting samples he could weave back into the arrangements, DeLuca (a revered solo artist in his own right) was often in the rear of the studio with the rest of the band, crafting lyrics around inspiring messages of community and resilience. Together with Lanois, DeLuca took full advantage of modern recording techniques, slicing and dicing live, improvised performances into discrete songs that could be fleshed out with experimental effects and sci-fi flourishes.

“Way Down” is a terrific example of these four-part gospel harmonies as Shepherd’s organ provides the church-sounding backdrop while “Please Don’t Try” has Shepherd on the deeply emotive lead vocal as the band chimes in on the choruses. “Tree of Tule” introduces guitar and piano that join the organ as the accompaniment for more gorgeous group harmonies. “Tumbling stone” returns to the organ-fueled backing like “Dance On” and “Angel’s Watching” features organ jabs, echoes, and sustained chords along with a few guitar notes and well-placed chimes behind the pure exalted gospel vocals.

On the single and title track “Under the Heavy Sun” Lanois comments, “Everything started out as a gospel song in this entourage because our organist, Johnny Shepherd, is a Baptist church minister and choir leader,” Lanois says, noting the vocalist’s “powerhouse” performance. “We started on this journey together thinking about spirit and where the next dimension of spirit might be. We invented this place in the song, imagining some kind of spirit nightclub in outer space you can leave your ego at the door. It’s a kind of fictitious, utopian nightclub where you can cleanse your soul and have a new beginning — not one of sacrifice but one of celebration, entering a new dimension of joy.”

We get more conventional gospel in the two closing tunes, “Mother’s Eyes” and “Out of Sight” with ever-present organ and those glorious harmonies that have soothed us throughout. “Our goal was to be a force for good with these songs,” explains Lanois. “We wanted to remind people not to let the world steal their joy, to remind them that even during a global pandemic, it’s our responsibility to protect our spirits and find ways to keep on dancing, keep on singing, keep on teaching, keep on loving.” Yes, this is one terrific gospel record, one you didn’t likely expect from the bandleader.  It reminds somewhat of the album that Levon Helm called “one of the best albums he ever made” when he and Garth Hudson recorded with the iconic gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds – unexpected but truly a revelation.

 

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