Daniel Lanois built his first studio back in 1968 in his mother’s basement and from those simple beginnings over fifty years ago, he has gone on to become one of the world’s most renowned record producers, working with the likes of U2, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Emmylou Harris.
He released his first solo album in 1989 and in the intervening years has delivered more than a dozen records, all of which defy classification, along with composing scores for Oscar-winning films and high-profile video games. His position as an iconic producer is cemented, but it can often overshadow the interesting and eclectic work that Lanois does on his own records.
This new venture, focusing on instrumental piano work might seem like a world away from the sleek production done for other artists, but he has always been an artist for whom arrangement and thematic ideas, alongside an emphasis on tone and texture, have been central to his work. Player, Piano is a collection of thirteen instrumental tracks, which manage to be both experimental and comforting whilst creating a sound that is intimate, yet cinematic. For this album, Lanois and his co-producer Dangerous Wayne Lorenz have dampened and dulled the effect of the hammers and strings on their pianos to create a softened, vintage tone reminiscent of the music of the 1940s and 1950s.
Opening track My All sets the tone and is a simple yet graceful elegy written for Lanois’ brother Bob who died last year, and this sparse, ethereal sound is continued on emotive tracks Zsa Zsa, Sweet Imagination and Inverness. Lanois’s classical leanings are most evident on the timeless Eau, which features a glistening ethereal melody unfolding over twinkling synths and percussion. Tracks such as Twilight and Lighthouse have a darker, ambient feel, creating filmic soundscapes that are as evocative as they are impressive. Puebla and Cascade are tracks that evoke a strong sense of place and time, but give the listener space to bring their own response to the music.
These are thoughtful and delicate pieces infused with touches that set them apart from standard solo piano works – the distant hints of other textures, touches of unsettling, unplaceable sounds, and unexpected and intricate time signatures. Closing track Sunday Asylum is a classic example of Lanois playbook for the whole album, building as it does to an unexpected and moving conclusion.
The overall tone on Player, Piano is one of simplicity but don’t be fooled. A producer and musician of this calibre demands and rewards attention and Lanois makes fantastic use of melody and tempo to create an album rich in tone and atmosphere with enough variation to hold the attention. This might be instrumental music, but Player, Piano is anything but background music.
Speaking of his new release, Lanois says, “if I don’t do my experiments and I don’t go through my explorations, then I’ve got nothing to bring to the table. I’d be a charlatan.” On Player, Piano he proves that he is the real deal – creating a soundscape that perfectly highlights his unique talent.