Sarah McLachlan

TrackAlbum  
VoxTouch
The Path Of Thorns (Terms)Solace
PossessionFumbling Towards Ecstasy
IceFumbling Towards Ecstasy
Hold OnFumbling Towards Ecstasy
Dear GodA Testimonial Dinner: The Songs Of XTC
Building A MysterySurfacing
Full Of GraceSurfacing
SilenceKarma
TimeAfterglow

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Sarah McLachlan photo

Sarah McLachlan

 

Contributor: Joyce Gibson

In 1993, I was flicking through channels on my new-fangled cable TV and caught a video on one of the many music stations. It was called Possession, by Sarah McLachlan. She had the purest voice but the song was quite dark, about a stalker. You don’t get much darker than the line, “into the sea of waking dreams, I follow without pride”. Although it was a bit slicker than my usual musical fare, I really liked it but realised I knew absolutely nothing about her.

As it was pre-internet days, it took me ages to track down a copy of the album the song was on, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I discovered Sarah was Canadian, and the UK wasn’t really a market she was trying to break. But I eventually located a copy of the CD and I couldn’t stop listening to it. There were no bad songs on it and there was a purity and honesty which I found incredibly engaging. It remains one of my favourite 90s albums.

I travelled to the US a couple of times around 1994 and picked up copies of Sarah’s earlier CDs, Touch and Solace. And for about ten years she was an artist I regularly listened to. Over time, I’ve found the quality of her work has declined but – as there are more than ten songs I still think are worthy of a spin – I decided to write this article so she could join the Toppermost list of featured artists.

Sarah McLachlan was born in 1968 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to a single mother. She was adopted by a middle class family and was musical from an early age, playing guitar and piano. Her big influences were Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. She was discovered by Nettwerk Records and moved to Vancouver when she was still in her teens, having completed some classical training at her parents’ insistence.

Her first album, Touch, was released in 1988. Some of the arrangements are virtually classical and there is no doubting her talent, especially her voice. Ben’s Song shows the multi-octave, operatic range and there’s a rarely heard purity in her voice. She was still finding her feet as a writer but there are some standouts on this record – in particular Vox which was also her debut single. This got a dance remix, something which happened often to her songs, but we’ll stick with the original version here.

She made sufficient progress in Canada to attract the attention of Arista Records in the US. Her next album was Solace (1991). This was when she first worked with Pierre Marchand who became a mentor as well as her producer. Marchand had in turn been mentored by Daniel Lanois and this is evident in the sound he achieved on Sarah’s albums.

Into The Fire has a more confident sound to it, her pure soprano carrying the song which shows her moving in the right direction as a writer. The Path Of Thorns is even better, there’s raw emotion and anger as she sings about a broken relationship.

She took a break after touring heavily to support Solace and spent some time in Montreal writing her next album. Never a prolific songwriter, she suffered writer’s block before the songs started to flow. The result was Fumbling Towards Ecstasy – her breakthrough album and still her finest work.

Possession led the album and made her famous in the US as well as in Canada where she was already a household name. It started to make some waves for her in Europe as well but she was never as big a draw on this side of the Atlantic.

It’s actually difficult to pick songs off this album, such is its quality. Every one is perfectly arranged. Lyrically moving, covering topics such as unwanted attention, domestic abuse, falling in love, friendship and disappointment which some may find off-putting, it’s simply one of the most complete albums I’ve ever heard. I’ve chosen Ice because it’s so bleak, but beautiful as well. Starkly performed, it’s moving and absolutely perfect.

The Fumbling CD has one of those 90s ‘hidden’ tracks – a note perfect piano only version of Possession and I personally find this one superior to the track which kicks off the album. She came to the UK in 1994 to tour (which I missed due to being tardy in trying to get tickets for her gig at a very small venue in Glasgow) and performed it this way on Later With Jools Holland. It’s one of the most intense performances I have ever seen. I’ve chosen this version over the better known full band one, although there is an uncomfortable interview with Jools beforehand, where he doesn’t even pronounce her name correctly. Fast forward to the tune.

 

Another track worthy of inclusion in my top 10 is Hold On. I have read that she wrote it about a friend who had AIDS but I’m not sure whether or not this is the case. “Am I in heaven or I am in hell?” she asks.

Sarah McLachlan recorded quite a few cover versions over the years, including a couple of Joni Mitchell songs. However, my favourite of her covers is her version of XTC’s Dear God, which she recorded in 1995 for the tribute LP, A Testimonial Dinner: The Songs Of XTC. There is an incredible anger at the end and she totally nails it.

The next album was 1997’s Surfacing. This was her biggest seller, becoming multi-platinum in both Canada and the US. It coincided with her Lilith Fair festival concept which featured an all-female line-up. This was a great success in North America. She had also got married, to her drummer, Ashwin Sood, and was making it clear motherhood was her next ambition.

Surfacing opened with Building A Mystery about a “beautiful fucked up man” and it’s one of my favourites. I think it’s about the excitement of meeting someone you want to be with, and make a future with, but in the back of your mind you know he’s probably not a keeper. The sound initially seems quite easy on the ears but that’s deceiving; there’s a lot going on and it rewards with repeated plays.

The most famous track on Surfacing is Angel which has gone on to be played at hundreds of funerals over the years. It’s stark and moving but it’s not one of my favourites. Other hits on it are Sweet Surrender and Adia, but I have chosen Full Of Grace as I find it even more moving than Angel. It’s about a darkness which has to be overcome and it’s a gorgeous song.

In the late 90s Sarah recorded a song with Canadian band Delerium, called Silence. It was originally a very slow, almost hymnal, song but eventually it got remixed by various DJs and became something of a trance classic. It remains her only major hit in the UK.

There was a gap between Surfacing and Afterglow (which appeared in 2003) while Sarah became a mother. She also lost her own mother while expecting her first child and Afterglow reflected this. It wasn’t quite as good an album overall as its predecessors but there are some excellent songs on it – World On Fire, probably her most political song, is worthy of a mention.

 

My favourite song on Afterglow, however, is Time. I finally got to see Sarah live in 2004 and the only disappointment was that she didn’t perform this song. Multi-layered, lyrically masterful, it’s one of her finest in my opinion.

Listening to Afterglow with hindsight I now think the garden wasn’t as rosy for Sarah as she made out. Time hints at a possible controlling relationship and Fallen is clearly about making mistakes. Seeing her in concert during the Afterglow tour, while she sounded fantastic the chat in between songs was a little bit too showbizzy for my taste. It was probably the moment where I realised my days as a fan were numbered.

After she’d finished touring Afterglow, there was a hiatus. She released a Christmas album, Wintersong, a couple of new songs to tack on to the inevitable Best Of collection, and had another baby. Her marriage to Sood ended not long after, though there was a clue in the song U Want Me 2 when she sings “our Eden’s a failure”. This was on Laws Of Illusion, released in 2010; an album that reflected the change in her personal life as she moved on to a new relationship. This is where I started to lose interest. The quality of the songs wasn’t as strong and there was a sense, for me anyway, that she had peaked.

Another album appeared in 2014, Shine On, and a second Christmas album, Wonderland, appeared two years later and has recently been nominated for a Grammy. Sarah also released several live albums, something I found rather off-putting as well.

In North America, Sarah McLachlan remains a huge name and draw, but probably these days is considered a bit of an MOR artist; a shame as she was so much more than that twenty-five years ago. In the UK she is nowhere near as well known, but I guess many of us have got a little tearful during that bit in Toy Story 2 when Jessie the Cowgirl is given up to a charity shop by her owner, to the sound of Sarah singing Randy Newman’s When She Loved Me.

Part of me wishes Sarah could again reach the dizzy heights of the 90s, but then I realise it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy exists in my head and my heart. She is worthy of this article for that album alone.

 

Sarah McLachlan official website

Sarah McLachlan discography (Wikipedia)

The official Sarah McLachlan YouTube channel

Rolling Stone interview (1998)

Sarah McLachlan biography (iTunes)

Joyce Gibson is a lifelong music fan, inherited from her dad and now passed on to her niece. She’s been buying records for over 40 years and going to gigs since the 70s (just!) and enjoys writing about music when working full-time doesn’t get in the way. Joyce tweets @northseacrashes and co-hosts @PsychoSundae featuring the best psych and garage tunes chosen by followers. However, she listens to many genres of music as her Toppermost articles attest.

Read Joyce’s other posts on Cocteau Twins, Shangri-Las, Kate Bush, The Glitter Band

TopperPost #685

3 Comments

  1. Alex Lifson
    Dec 23, 2017

    Great article. very informative and not overly long. Especially loved your reasonings behind your choices as well as mentioning other songs that were in the running.

  2. Peter Viney
    Dec 27, 2017

    I knew very little about her, and am delighted to have a guide to further listening. I’ve often thought “must find out about her.” The reason is one of her collaborations, on Cyndi Lauper’s “The Body Acoustic” where Cyndi remakes some of her hits in 2005. She does two songs with Sarah, Time After time and Water’s Edge. Time After time is one I play a lot. I love the contrast between Cyndi’s wonderfully quirky voice and Sarah’s pure voice. See the live version.

  3. Damien Spanjer
    Jan 3, 2018

    Great article. I struggled to get into her earlier material, never really moving beyond Surfacing and Afterglow. From the former, I’d have to put in an honorable mention for “Adia” and from the latter, “Push”. Her version of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” invariably features on my seasonal playlist in preference to Lennon’s which just sounds too jarring alongside the likes of Michael Buble and choral music. She has a voice that captivates you immediately, with an almost other-worldly, Celtic lilt. It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to her, so now is as good a time as any to revisit her earlier material which failed to engage me when I was younger. Thanks for a great read.

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