This third release remains the best album to date by “The Queen Of Lilith Fair.” It’s a consistently engaging collection, one that’s characterized by highly personal lyrics full of unbridled passion (“I would be the one to hold you down, kiss you so hard, I’ll take your breath away”) and a desperate desire to love (“I would not let myself believe you might stray, I would stand behind you no matter what they might say;” “what is this love that keeps me coming back for more when it will only end in misery?”). Sarah is an intelligent woman who learns from her mistakes, however, preaching self-awareness (“hold on to yourself”) and ultimately deciding that “I won’t fear love.” McLachlan possesses an evocative, sultry voice (often effectively multi-tracked) and comes up with consistently ear pleasing melodies. Besides her strong songwriting and gorgeous voice, McLachlan’s brand of folk rock is distinguishable from other sensitive female performers due to her incorporation of electronic dance beats and synthesizers, and she even shows a lighter side on the still-seductive “Ice Cream” (“your love is better than ice cream”). The problems with the album, and they’re relatively minor ones, are that songs such as “Wait” and “Ice” get by on their haunting atmosphere without being especially memorable, plus a boredom factor that creeps in at times. A thick, icy production dominates “Plenty,” as perhaps here and elsewhere the hooks could be more readily apparent, but “Good Enough” and “Circle” even have cool guitar solos, and songs such as “Mary,” “Elsewhere,” “Hold On,” and “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” are easy enough to sing along to after awhile. On a more experimental front, the operatic industrialism of “Fear” is certainly different, while “Possession,” the album’s first and best song (reprised in a slower, acoustic version at album’s end), became a minor hit and took Sarah’s success outside of her homeland of Canada, where she was already a star. Her success was well deserved, for the lush sonics of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy offer dependable rewards that hold up over repeat listens.
Surfacing (Arista ‘97) Rating: B
McLachlan’s increased profile from her Lilith Fair efforts all but assured that this album would be a big hit. It was, but that didn’t obscure the fact that it was somewhat disappointing, making me wonder if some of her creative energy wasn’t sapped by having to spend so much time organizing that successful all-female tour (a major success at the end of the ‘90s). She still has one of the loveliest voices around, which she uses to fine effect on ultra-spare piano ballads such as “Adia” and “Angel,” but most of the album is in this (too) safe vein, though she shows more of a pulse on “Sweet Surrender” and “Building A Mystery.” The latter song was the first hit single, and it's a song that had to grow on me over time, in contrast to “Possession,” her last album’s flagship tune which I instantly recognized as a potential classic. This demonstrates how the album in general takes some warming up to, as it’s considerably less varied, energetic, and creative than its predecessor. Surfacing generally features her lone piano and other subtle shadings, while relying on her beautiful, often-breathy vocals to make up for mundane melodies. "I Love You" and "Witness" are the most filler-ish songs, while the experimentation is mostly limited to "Last Dance," a nifty little Moog-led instrumental. Alas, elsewhere Sarah takes few chances and plays things too close to the vest, and no matter how lovely parts of the album are there’s no getting past the fact that 40+ minutes of this stuff gets a bit boring.
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