Daniel Lanois Expands His Signature Sound with Old-School Gospel on 'Heavy Sun'

Daniel Lanois Expands His Signature Sound with Old-School Gospel on 'Heavy Sun'
Heavy Sun, Daniel Lanois' new LP, will have you proclaiming "Hallelujah!" Chalk that up, in part, to Johnny Shepherd, who not so much sings as preaches and testifies most of the album's vocals. All the while, Shepherd's shrill organ riffs could galvanize any congregation to their feet. It's certainly a different tone than the hazily haunting production Lanois famously offered U2, Bob Dylan, and fellow Canuck Neil Young.

That means casual fans familiar with the Hull, QC-born legend's work behind the boards will be surprised by "Please Don't Try." A prime example of what sets this LP apart from the mainstream Lanois oeuvre, "Please Don't Try" finds Shepherd's organ purring in contentment as he belts out one devoted-love proclamation after the other. The song climaxes with gorgeous harmonies between Shepherd, Lanois, guitarist Rocco DeLuca, and bassist Jim Wilson. "Tumbling Stone" takes those qualities even further. Lanois and his other bandmates provide a simple vocal bedrock, from which Shepherd's bellowing ad-libs lift off and soar. And on closing numbers "Mother's Eyes" and "Out of Sight," the entire band shares the vocal spotlight, harmonizing together like old friends, though occasional wails from Shepherd pepper the proceedings with aplomb.

"(Under The) Heavy Sun" marks a stark departure from such sparse fare. Its opening synths and drum loops, along with samples of moaning vocals, all evoke the experimental classics Lanois made with mentor Brian Eno. However, the album's hallmark harmonies take over before long, morphing the song from ambient and abstract to a sparser, church choir tone in keeping with much of the rest of Heavy Sun. "Every Nation" however, is laden with the enough studio trickery — from reverb to pre-programmed drums — to make it sound like an outtake from U2's Lanois-produced All That You Can't Leave Behind sessions.

Beautiful as these less lo-fi tracks are, they're better suited for a different, effects-driven project. What instead makes Heavy Sun memorable are Lanois' exercises in restraint, like the pretty harmonies with his bandmates and the space ceded to Shepherd's vocal-organ one-two-punch. That point is all the more meaningful for anyone who caught Lanois' recent WTF podcast appearance. On it, he told host Marc Maron about both being raised on organ-rife gospel, and his early studio sessions with vocal quartets touring Ontario.

Regardless, this album reveals that Lanois is as gifted a collaborator and curator of talent as he is a creator of atmospheric productions for megastars. Let's hope the pandemic lockdowns lift soon, because Lanois and his bandmates deserve to delight audiences with their crackling chemistry and old-school gospel songcraft, all of which are vividly captured on Heavy Sun. (eOne)