A short list of Daniel Lanois’ most acclaimed production work would probably focus on his multiple collaborations with Brian Eno: working on the latter’s ambient music, then co-producing U2 from The Unforgettable Fire onward. Curious fans will learn little about either in Soul Mining, Lanois’ scattered, highly self-regarding memoirs. “I decided I was going to build a classic,” he says of Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, and the sentiment is typical of the high esteem Lanois feels for himself. The title is no joke: Lanois’ psyche is his primary reference point. Jumping back and forth through time without the benefits of dates or firm thematic links from one event to another, Soul Mining assumes a complete knowledge of Lanois’ résumé as a prerequisite.
Certainly his rise to being one of the industry’s top producers (2010 saw him working with both Ne-Yo and Neil Young on new releases) is a dramatic story. But Lanois mostly glosses over narrative specifics, unless he wants to offer technical details, often combined with kneejerk rock nostalgia to headspinning effect: “Give me a Blaupunkt mono on-point source radio out of a 1972 Mercedes and I’m happy.” That same reverence apparently applies to latter-day U2, at least conceptually: Few people think of the roots of slicked-back, revved-up-and-fresh rock when listening to U2’s “Beautiful Day,” but Lanois devotes a full three-pages chapter to its genesis, claiming “It had a good foundation rooted in the tradition of Bo Diddley, or Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life.’” Not likely. The focus on “Beautiful Day” is typical of the book, which wastes comparatively little time on, say, The Joshua Tree or Peter Gabriel’s So album in favor of exhaustive chronicles of working on the Sling Blade score and Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, which may strike admirers as dubious career highs.
Much of Soul Mining is sincere but utterly familiar reverence for the unshakable, unquestionable brilliance of the blues and ’50s rock; Lanois does nothing to freshen it up. Matters aren’t helped much when he inserts entire song lyrics to flesh out how he feels. (“And be your sweet soul honey / sweet honey / sweet honey / sweet honey / sweet honey.”) Nor does he lack a sense of importance when describing how manic his work makes him: “I felt like some specialist surgeon,” he says about mixing Robbie Robertson’s “Sweet Fire Of Love,” “unraveling cancerous intestines, cutting out the bad parts, and sticking it all together to give somebody back their life.” That isn’t a chronicle of an internal state of mind, it’s self-aggrandizement excused as a portrait of true dedication. And so Lanois pings back and forth between lyrics, cliches disguised as aphorisms and technical advice. There’s definitely a black-box-magic feel to producing, which is as much technique as latching onto intuitive sounds and hard-to-quantify intangible factors. In describing it, though, Lanois doesn’t bring it down from the mountain, so much as he boorishly, ponderously praises himself.