Book review: 'Soul Mining' by Daniel Lanois

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Daniel Lanois loves shadows — in his rooms, in his photographs and most famously in the atmospheric music he has produced for himself and such artists as Bob Dylan, U2 and Peter Gabriel, in which sonic shadows lend dimension and an air of mystery.

In his often engaging musical memoir, Lanois creates shadows not to conjure mystery but to give him a place to hide when he decides he's said enough. More than once he stops the story and dims the lights, frustrating a reader who's been drawn into his simmering stew of ideas and his robust account of growing up in Canada.

"Something had happened to me, and I had lost my musical direction," he writes. The declaration comes out of the blue, with no preamble or resolution. Later, when he ends a sojourn in New Orleans, he shares little: "For personal reasons I moved to Mexico and eventually sold the house."

Fair enough. "Every record should have ground rules that relate to the expectations of the artist" is one of his multitude of principles, and naked revelation clearly isn't one of the rules here.

Within the limits he has drawn, though, "Soul Mining" has plenty to offer: his tale of an unconventional upbringing, a how-to manual for creative record-makers, confrontations with epic aesthetic challenges and front-row seating at some epochal recording sessions.

Lanois' major credits include Dylan's brooding late-career comeback "Time Out of Mind" and (with longtime collaborator Brian Eno) a long string of U2 recordings, including "The Joshua Tree." Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Emmylou Harris are among his prestigious clientele.

The story he tells makes his stature as an elite producer who's attuned to the performer's artistic vision seem both inevitable and surprising. A maverick by nature, he was driven in childhood by a fierce curiosity about how things work — behind factory doors, under the hoods, up in the power pole.

Many miles later (by thumb and by Harley), and with the secrets of John Lee Hooker, Blind Willie Johnson, Link Wray and Mexican bass lines in his sights, he resolved to create sounds that are at once traditional and futuristic.

Rather than book time at a fancy studio, he crafts his own recording spaces — in his mom's basement and an abandoned library in Hamilton, Ontario; a mansion in New Orleans; a house in Baja; a former Buddhist temple in Toronto; a shuttered Mexican movie theater in Oxnard.

He's as occupied with the ergonomics of the setup and the psychology of the participants as with more standard producer concerns, and while he provides enough brand names and model numbers to appease gear geeks, anyone with a serious interest in some monumental music of the last two decades will savor his explorations of the metaphysics of recording.

Lanois' prose is propulsive, with an undertow of serenity, and his passion for music courses through the pages. "We had found the sound for 'Time Out of Mind,'" he writes. "I was so excited I couldn't sleep."

Lanois does make a small gesture toward introspection, surmising that his searching, perpetually dissatisfied nature is a family trait, "built into my character."

In the book's most poignant image, he recalls playing his favorite instrument alone in a studio for weeks at a time — "every drop of sorrow in me dripping down to my fingers and onto the steel guitar."

If only he'd led us to the source of that sorrow.

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