Ruminations on mortality
Daniel Lanois is totally sympathetic. He knows that his phone-companion for this dialogue about himself and Bob Dylan made the same mistake made by "many reviewers all over the world". As in stupidly assuming that just because Dylan's new album sings of death, decay and despair, it must have been composed after his near fatal six-week dance with delirium early this year. I mean, what else could be implied by a title like Time Out Of Mind? But no: it now transpires that the album was recorded before he was diagnosed with pericarditis, a swelling of the sac around the heart. So, okay, what was Dylan tuning into when he wrote this suite of songs? Pre-millennium tensions? A Sinatra-like September Of My Years "vibe"? The loss of a love as central to his life as whoever inspired his last great cri de coeur, Blood On The Tracks ?
Before we turn to Daniel Lanois on this particular question it should, perhaps, be pointed out that this interview came about as the result of personal contacts, rather than record company protocol which, in fact, blocked the path to Lanois. Even so, I was cautioned in advance that "there are restrictions on what Dan can say about Bob Dylan". Restrictions imposed, no doubt, not just by the relentlessly private Dylan but by his record company, Columbia. However, only a fool - or a Dylan-freak - would deny that it also is the artistry of Daniel Lanois which makes Time Out Of Mind Bob Dylan's most sublime album since, well, Oh Mercy, which "Dan" produced in 1989.
Now let's hear Lanois on his latest project with Dylan. "Well, Bob was starting to get a little sick when we were sequencing the album," he recalls. "We had finished the record but then, at that point, what hit him was fluid around the heart and it probably had been building up for a while. So even though we didn't do these songs after he had that problem, the album definitely has those ruminations on mortality. Why don't we just say the songs are accurately sung from the perspective of a man who has lived a few lives?"
But not a man who is fixing to die, to cull a title from an old Dylan tune? "I don't think so," Lanois reflects, who claims that the "dirge and trance elements" in the music come as much from himself as from Dylan. "What I was tuning into was the darkness of the songs. I can't get away from those aspects of myself. And I do regard myself as the soul police, so the important ingredient for me is looking after the song, the artist, the centre, which - to me - is the voice and the lyrics. Everything else is the frame. But what we also did this time was make reference to some old records, from the 1950s, that Bob really likes because they had a natural depth-of-field which was not the result of a mixing technique. You get the sense that somebody is in the front singing, a couple of other people are further behind and somebody else is way in the back of the room. So we set the studio up like that. There definitely is a sense of symphony and performance to these recordings."
Time Out Of Mind certainly sounds as immediate as Dylan's live gigs, music shaped largely by the mood of the man himself, his belief in spontaneous creativity and desire to be a cipher for whatever subterranean truths rise, consciously or, even better, otherwise, as a result of this process. "That is how he works," notes Lanois, suggesting that this lends "a real sense of discovery" to the songs.
"Musicians barely knew the songs and were trying to make their way through, without hitting the wrong chords!" he recalls, laughing. "But there's always going to be a sense of discovery with Bob because, at the last second, without warning and as the `record' button is pressed, he'll change the key and time signature! Then musicians will just look at themselves and dribble in and often Bob will say `that's it'. That happened in at least half the tracks on this album. Not Dark Yet had a radically different feel in the demo we did, which I loved and still miss. It was quicker and more stripped down and then, in the studio, he changed it into a civil war ballad. But, on the other hand, with Dirt Road Blues he made me pull out the original cassette, sample 16 bars and we all played over that. "
Even so, somewhat reluctantly, Daniel admits that "Bob's instincts were probably right" in relation to Not Dark Yet which clearly is a quite perfect prayer set to music. He also reveals that the "stripped down" feel of the album was exactly what Bob Dylan was seeking. "He wanted something ragged, without a lot of polish and no flash solos. The guitar solos are fragmented. Bob plays most himself and I'm right behind him, with my Les Paul, trying to keep things as dark as possible!" he jokes.
Time Out Of Mind is obviously less polished than Oh Mercy, which Lanois affectionately refers to as coming more from his "atmospheric period", post-U2. He also reveals that he himself initiated the project, explaining "selfish me didn't want to miss the opportunity to work with the poet one more time". "Bob slowed down writing for a while, then came back at it with a vengeance," he elaborates. "In fact, when we first got together he didn't play me any songs; he read me the songs. He read 12 lyrics back-to-back for an hour and it was like listening to someone reading a book. Then, later, in the studio, he modified the lyrics. "
Modified or not, these lyrics are classic Dylan, that black romantic lashing out because he's still enslaved by a love that is as ambivalent as it is true. In Standing In The Doorway he delivers lines like: "Don't know if I saw you/If I would kiss you or kill you/It probably wouldn't matter to you anyhow" which Lanois agrees are "so skeletal, emotionally" that stripped down music is all they could call forth. In the perfectly-titled Heartlands the boy whose rage originally defined counter-cultural self-expression in the 1960s now sings as a seasoned man nearing 60, looking achingly at young people in a park and admitting "I'd trade places with any of them, in a minute, if I could". This, Lanois notes, "is bravery of the purest form"; the antithesis of, say, The Stones, who rather pathetically pretend they still are sweet sixteen. "In literature we look to wisdom, age and experience, to learn from people who, as I said earlier about Dylan, have lived enough lives to make us want to listen to them," he suggests. "But we never look for that in pop music. We can't imagine that someone of 18 is going to have that wisdom! But, to me, these songs are literature, reflections from a man looking back. That's what you do when you are 56 years old. That's what Dylan is doing. And I have a feeling that Bob is really pleased with this album and the amazing reviews it's been receiving, though he probably wouldn't admit that `embracement' is important to him. And working with him has been a great source of inspiration for me, in terms of my own music, which you'll hear on my own album, which, I promise, will be better than the last, because that was probably too rushed!"
When Daniel Lanois refers to "working with" Dylan, he describes this experience as being defined by "good camaraderie". He also makes it quite clear that he is a producer, musician and buddy that Bob Dylan trusts. And Mr Dylan, apparently, does not confide in too many musicians.
"Bob and I had a plan and we would step out into the parking lot, because he would never discuss anything openly in front of the band, in terms of intimate details of the songs," he recalls. "Like the song Standing In The Doorway. We were in the parking lot and I said `listen, I love Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Can we steal that feel for this song?' And he'd say `you think that'd work?' Then we'd sit on the fender of a truck, in this parking lot in Miami, and I'd often think, if people see this they won't believe it! Me and Bob Dylan just sitting here, strumming guitars, working out chords for a session!"
Asked why Dylan doesn't "discuss anything" in front of musicians, Daniel Lanois responds in a deliciously understated manner, saying, "Well, he doesn't like too much democracy!" Through, yes, Dylan does "like" him. "He respects my commitment, knows I love him and want the best for him," he says. "He also knows he can't bulldoze me too hard; I'll put up a fight. So it's a two-way street."
And, if, Lord forbid, Dylan dies before making another album, does Daniel Lanois believe he will get into heaven on the strength of Time Out Of Mind? "I think he's got a few more albums in him before that happens!" he responds, laughing. "Though I did get a bit concerned when he went to see the Pope."