Daniel Lanois’ name has become synonymous with sonic exploration. From his early electronic music collaborations with Brian Eno through his legendary production work with Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, U2 and more, to his own recordings, the Canadian-born musician has delved deeply into manipulation of sound, both analog and digital.
When he makes his own music Lanois specializes in the pedal steel guitar, a notoriously difficult instrument. His 2005 release Belladonna is one of my favorites of that decade, a melodic and rhythmic exploration of country and Americana sounds and tunes, abetted by one of his longtime collaborators, drummer Brian Blade. His 2014 release Flesh and Machine likewise enlisted Blade on an instrumental work featuring steel guitar and electronics. (Or so I’m told; I don’t have it. I aim to rectify that omission.)
Goodbye to Language is made entirely of sounds produced by steel guitars – his own pedal steel and the lap steel of collaborator Rocco Deluca, both of them at times processed and manipulated nearly beyond recognition. It packs a galaxy of sonic delights into just 37 minutes, with 11 mostly short pieces of music, the longest only five minutes’ worth.
The opening track “Low Sudden” sets something of a pattern for the album. Streams of sound, some recognizable as guitar-produced, others that could be synthesizers masquerading as orchestral instruments, waft across the sonic screen, some of them flowing on peacefully while others suddenly end or shift courses abruptly. “Time On” keeps threatening to break out into a melodic line like something by a French impressionist composer from 100 years ago, but those expectations of your ears are continually frustrated.
And on it goes. “Falling Stanley” even more insistently teases, its long descending glissandos suddenly ending and becoming some other chord or brief ostinato. It’s like looking into a glowing fireplace or a waterfall, the eye constantly seeking a pattern that is just as constantly failing to form in the gentle chaos.
Speaking of French impressionists, there’s a track called “Satie,” which may come closest to having a melodic line, and a subtle descending three-note baseline around which the pedal steel’s soundscape flows and dissipates.
Here’s an official video for another piece called “Deconstruction.”
There’s an interesting essay by Tom Moon on the NPR First Listen website where this album was premiered earlier this month. Moon posits that this album may be Lanois’ sonic response to the rapid ascendancy of emoji as a new wordless way of communicating. I’m not sure I hear that in it, but Goodbye to Language is a rich gift of music to this writer and fan, who has always loved pedal steel and is rediscovering an early love of old-school synthesizers like the Moog and Arp. If nothing else, it’s an album to drop into your late-night playlist, that one you listen to when you’re home alone on a dark night, perhaps sipping at your favorite whiskey and contemplating life.