Itâ€™s barely gone September as I write this, but already in the place where I live the nights are growing cold. The sun, which all summer long took its sweet time to slide away behind the hills at the close of day, drops now like a quarter into a jukebox. Autumn is not here yet, but itâ€™s close enough that itâ€™s time to think about taking the boots and the barn coat out of storage. Itâ€™s time to think about building some cold frames and covering the garden. Itâ€™s time again to play Acadie.
Marking Daniel Lanoisâ€™s recorded debut as a singer-songwriter after serving production duties on some of the biggest records of the ’80s, Acadie was largely unencumbered with the weight of expectation. Oh, it was a given that the thing would sound great, would be charged with the same blend of ethereal atmosphere and smoky groove that characterized Lanoisâ€™s work with U2, the Neville Brothers, Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan â€” projects that saw Lanois becoming, in effect, a member of the band. But as anyone who ever paid full price for a Davitt Sigerson album will tell you, itâ€™s no good being the name above the title if you havenâ€™t got the songs to back it up. And itâ€™s the songs that make Acadie such an endearing (and enduring) record.
As a songwriter, Lanois forgoes both the anthemnal gestures of U2 and the carnival funk of the Neville Brothers, pitching Acadie to a very human scale. Listen to â€œO Marieâ€(download) â€” just two close-miked acoustic guitars, plenty of natural room sound, and a soft, sleepy baritone; thatâ€™s all there is to it â€” but it manages to sound massive and intimate all at once, a universal hard-luck story made fresh and specific by the language and the details.
Thopse images recur throughout the album â€” of working-class French-Canadians, economically displaced, eking it out in the city while pining for the beloved countryside now lost to them, the â€œArcadiaâ€ of the title. Migration, yearning, loss; the passing of time, keenly felt. This is what autumn is all about.
Acadie has a large roster of guest musicians, and Lanois deploys them discreetly, in service to the songs, giving each a distinctive sonic character while sustaining the overall mood. â€œStill Waterâ€ (download) features U2â€™s rhythm section at their most understated and lyrical, and subtle, almost subliminal keyboards from Brian Eno. Aaron Nevilleâ€™s unmistakable voice comes in as a counterpoint on a spacey, album-closing version of â€œAmazing Grace,â€ brimming with stately melancholy; but he sounds a celebratory note, as well, on â€œThe Makerâ€ (download), which turns a New Orleans groove inside out and reassembles it into a plaintive modern hymn.
Then there is Lanoisâ€™s own voice; not just his singing â€” so conversational, so present, slipping freely between English and Quebecois French within a single line, with the shifting of a thought â€” but the voice of his lyrics. The words are plain, but thereâ€™s an air of mystery, like weâ€™re hearing only snatches of a long ongoing conversation. He never overreaches, but the images are full of emotion. Lanois always resists the urge to tell us too much. Itâ€™s oddly reminiscent of John Caleâ€™s writing circa Paris 1919 â€” he implies a wide screen, but gives us only sketchy corners of the picture.
And it keeps me coming back, year after year, when I need a jacket in the morning and a walk with the dog leaves my shoes soaked and chilly. If a strange vignette like â€œSiliumâ€™s Hillâ€ or â€œSt. Annâ€™s Goldâ€(download) moves me, leaves me spooked or wistful or exalted, maybe I couldnâ€™t tell you why. Or maybe itâ€™s the same feeling I get when I see a flock of geese, their V-shape tangled in the turning of their course, cutting some cryptic rune across a cold and brilliant sky. Itâ€™s the feeling that signals are going out somewhere, for those who can hear them; a time for goodbyes, for journeys and the shifting o0f the seasons, when home is a memory of lighted windows and soup on the stove, a fire in the hearth and a gentle voice and a naÃ¯ve melody in a corner of the kitchen, murmuring low, just there, at the edge of hearing. (Note: Lanois has reissued Acadie under his own Red Floor Records imprint, adding six new tracks and a 32-page booklet of “photographs and new inscriptions.” Order it here. –Ed.)