Sarah McLachlan- Building a Mystery

By Michelle Goldberg

Published July 29, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Sarah McLachlan is a different breed of singer from the Tori Amoses and Ani DiFrancos of the world. Amos and DiFranco, along with the many
solo chanteuses brought into the limelight by McLachlan's Lilith Fair, sing like young female memoirists write -- as if they're opening up a
vein. Their songs are the soundtracks to very personal melodramas. They turn themselves inside out, and their audiences revel in the rush of empathy. McLachlan, though, isn't an emotional exhibitionist. She's so wise and poised that she seems to live in a rarefied realm away from the messy neurotic stew of human entanglements. The heartbreak in her songs is
like the sadness of the angels in Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" -- she seems to be watching from above as people fall apart, wishing her huge voice could wrap them up like a pair of wings and comfort them through their misery. Her second album, after all, was called "Solace."

As was the case with 1994's "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy," the best pieces on McLachlan's new album, "Surfacing," are songs of consolation. On the ballad "Angel," she croons over her bittersweet piano, "You are pulled from the wreckage/Of your sullen reverie/In the arms of the angel/may you find some comfort." And on the hymnlike "Adia," she sings, "I pull you from your tower/I take away your pain/and show you all the beauty you possess." Like "Hold On" and "Good Enough" from "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy," these serenades to broken and battered people are filled with melancholy compassion -- there's no anger in McLachlan's music. It's like
the best friend who hides out with you when you're at your lowest, the friend who makes you tea, puts you to bed and takes care of everything while you sob into a pillow.

But it was that same calm distance that made it hard to relate to some of her earlier work, precisely because there was no recognizable pain or need. In pop music, few things sound more soulless than spirituality, and when McLachlan wasn't trying to comfort someone, her soaring songs were sometimes undermined by their blandly new-age subjects. On the intense but cloying "Possession," she sang, "Voices trapped in yearning/Memories trapped in time/The night is my companion/And solitude my guide." Though McLachlan's voice was gorgeous, bluesy and lush, there were no cracks of emotion. It was lovely but impenetrable.

The first single off of "Surfacing," "Building a Mystery," has a similar abstract, metaphysical distance. But on the rest of the album, she anchors herself a little closer to earth, and the grounding gives new power to her gospel-like voice. The wintry, nostalgic "Full of Grace" has Sarah pleading for salvation instead of providing it. "I'm pulled down by the undertow/I never thought I could feel so low/oh darkness I feel like letting go."

It's not just McLachlan's pain that seems more real on "Surfacing." Her voice sounds more sensual, more sultry, more physical, especially on "Sweet Surrender," a country-tinged love song reminiscent of k.d. lang's "Constant Craving." McLachlan has said that it's been a relief to realize that "there doesn't have to be 10 layers to every song." She's right -- sometimes, it's the simplest pop-music banalities that are the most sublime.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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