POP MUSIC : For the Beauty of the Word : Producer Daniel Lanois, known for creating rich sounds, tells powerful stories on his new album

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Daniel Lanois will talk as long as you want about the wondrous sonic textures he helped create on such landmark albums as U2's "The Joshua Tree" and Peter Gabriel's "So," but what he's really interested in these days is lyrics.

"I'm as excited--or even more excited--about lyrics as I am about music," says the 42-year-old French-Canadian, once described by Rolling Stone as the most important record producer to emerge in the '80s.

"If you've got a good lyric, it's something you want to hear over and over and over again, just like a great solo. It's something that just gets inside you."

This new enthusiasm will throw a curve to the hordes of would-be record-makers who study Lanois' recordings the way film students dissect the works of Scorsese and Kubrick.

Because of Lanois' reputation for achieving seductive sonic atmosphere on records, the lyrics and themes in his warmly affecting debut solo album, 1989's "Acadie," were generally overlooked by critics. The pop world isn't likely to make the same mistake twice.

Without sacrificing the intimacy and grace of the debut, Lanois' just-released follow-up, "For the Beauty of Wynona," focuses inescapably on storytelling, and it's a work of considerable imagination and force.

In a rave review, Time magazine suggests an artistic coming of age: "(Lanois) schooled himself with some illustrious teachers, but made himself unique. With 'Wynona,' he goes to the head of the class."

The album's "The Unbreakable Chain" captures deftly a woman's lingering heartache: "You walk and you know / That the wind is not passing you by / It's speaking and you listen/ And the tears don't come now when you cry."

Lanois won his second producer of the year Grammy last month for his work (with Brian Eno) on U2's "Achtung Baby," and he smiles sheepishly at the acclaim.

"I've been lucky enough to work with artists who are interested in experimentation and in breaking new ground, and that's what I thrive on," he says.

"I think I could probably produce like a mainstream ballad with a great singer and do OK, but that's not enough of a challenge. A great record should have a unique sonic identity from the moment you press the 'On' button."

Lanois, whose production credits also include Robbie Robertson's 1987 solo debut and Bob Dylan's much admired 1989 album "Oh, Mercy," is soft-spoken and retiring as he sits in a conference room at the Warner Bros. Records offices in Burbank--exactly what you would expect after listening to his debut album.

There is such an introspective quality to "Acadie"--a series of reflections on family and roots--that you can imagine it being made in the late-night isolation of a mountain cabin, with the music as Lanois' only companion.

But there's more daylight and energy in the new album. The themes too are more biting--tales of personal restlessness and obsession in the modern age.

As Lanois begins talking about his passion for music, his mood changes as surely as the tone of the two albums. He becomes more outgoing and his words flow freely.

It is disarming, in fact, to hear someone identified with some of the most distinguished musicians of the modern pop era suddenly talk lovingly about a novelty record by a long-forgotten Glendora surf band.

It was the Surfaris' "Wipe Out," he says, that triggered his fascination with record-making as a youngster.

"I was amazed by the sound of the record," says Lanois, whose doleful eyes mirror the melancholy strains in much of his music. "I used to play it over and over, listening to every part of it . . . marveling at how they could get so much energy and excitement into one little moment."

Long before that 1963 hit, however, Lanois was caught up in the music around the house--the lively, infectious fiddle sounds of his father and grandfather that flew when family or friends gathered in his native Quebec.

This warm sense of French-Canadian culture and tradition continues to personalize his music in much the same way a deep sense of ethnic roots enriches the music of, say, Ry Cooder or Los Lobos or the Neville Brothers. He even injects occasional French lyrics in his music.

By the time he was in his teens, Lanois' parents had divorced and he moved with his mother to Hamilton, Ontario, where he continued to assimilate to rock 'n' roll.

"Hendrix was a major one for me," Lanois says, his eyes brightening at the thought of the longtime hero. "The music just rang true for me. It was almost revolutionary for everyone my age . . . along with so many other records. I also remember loving the Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit.' It was this fascinating sound, very deep and heavy and dark."

Soon, Lanois was trying to re-create the magical sounds he heard on record on his primitive home tape recorder. "You wanted to know what it was that made them so powerful," he says. "It was like a puzzle, a mystery, and you wanted to know the answer . . . so that you could make the same magic."

After high school, Lanois played guitar in bar bands around Ontario, but he devoted most of his time to the studio, where he continued to experiment with captivating sounds. In the '70s, he and his older brother Bob made hundreds of demo tapes and albums for mostly obscure Canadian country, gospel and rock acts.

"There was enough action going on so that I wasn't discouraged," he says. "All this time, I was experimenting. I'd spend late nights putting sound through unusual signal paths. The idea was to find another dimension--deeper colors, richer blends."

Lanois was almost 30 by the time Brian Eno, a producer noted for his own atmospheric recordings with such artists as David Bowie and Talking Heads, heard a demo he had made for a band. They ended up working on a variety of relatively esoteric projects.

Things began changing quickly after U2 invited them to work on "The Unforgettable Fire," the 1984 album that introduced the rich, atmospheric sound that would also become the basis for "The Joshua Tree." Peter Gabriel also called, and Lanois alone produced his 1984 soundtrack to "Birdy," 1986's "So" and last year's "Us."

The phone hasn't stopped ringing with offers since.

In such acts as U2, Gabriel and Robertson, Lanois found artists as demanding of originality and quality as he was himself. The key to establishing a relationship in the studio, he says, is trust.

What about some of the artists he works with?

"One great thing about U2 is they welcome extreme suggestions," he says of the quartet of singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton. "Plus, you're dealing with four people, which means a constant flow of ideas. When Bono or Edge gets tired, Larry or Adam will take over."

And Peter Gabriel?

"He's really obsessed with not sounding like anybody else," Lanois says. "During a session, he'll even tell people, 'If you think anything we do is something that you think you've heard on another record, please raise your hand and yell.' "

What about Bob Dylan?

"That was just good old-fashioned hard work, in the sense there was no wasted time," the producer recalls. "When Bob and I first got together, he played me his songs on piano, and to feel more comfortable and involved, I brought my dobro along and just played along--and the record was done not unlike that . . . almost like a kitchen recording in a small way."

By the late '80s, Lanois had worked on enough acclaimed recordings to feel confident enough to attempt his solo album.

M elancholy and dark.

Those are words Lanois uses repeatedly to describe the musical moods that he finds most powerful--the moods, understandably, that dominate his two solo albums.

Lanois' voice is raw in the manner of Robertson's or Dylan's--and may be a problem for some listeners. Yet his vocal style works well with the warm, evocative layers of sound on the albums.

There are moments in "For the Beauty of Wynona" in which the sonic textures--sometimes anxious and stinging, sometimes fragile and caressing--overshadow the words. In the best moments, however, you feel a strong sense of growth.

In "Lotta Love to Give," he summarizes the moral uncertainty that runs through much of the album with a wry sensibility and lilt reminiscent of Paul Simon: "There's a sermon that I heard the other day / Confused me, so I looked the other way."

Sensing the time when he would make his own album, Lanois began keeping diaries in the mid-'80s, jotting down ideas and phrases. But he wishes he had begun concentrating on his writing earlier.

"I feel I am growing in that area the same way that novelists or short-story writers do," he says hopefully. "To me, they often get better the more they write. Good writing is kind of like a 'beyond attitude' skill.

"The thing that we love about rock 'n' roll and youth is attitude, but the thing we love about lyrics is not exclusive to rock 'n' roll or to youth. In fact, it often gets better the more you live--the more you find to say."

Lanois owns a recording studio in New Orleans, where he recorded "Wynona," but he lives mostly in London. He will spend the next few months touring in support of the album, then return to producing.

"I know we live in a world of categories, and you gotta be real careful about how you get perceived," he says. "But I don't mind the battle, if there is one, between the artist and the producer. I'm real proud of the work I've done as a producer. I can't change the fact that those records are well known and that I'm known as a producer.

"I see my own solo records as really just making more music and trying to get music out there that I think is going to make a difference. Once you get inside the studio, you are just trying to put your heart into the music."

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