Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sarah McLachlan Returns In A Big, Incredible Way With Laws Of Illusion!

The Good: Great vocals, Some wonderful tunes, Great lyrics, My wife LIKED it!
The Bad: Short, Few "hooks," There IS a two-disc version...
The Basics: Possibly a perfect album, despite a short duration and the fact there is a two-disc version, Sarah McLachlan's Laws Of Illusion is a powerful comeback for the artist!

Sometimes, having high standards and a system for reviewing works to the detriment of the product being reviewed. In other words, being one of the first to review a new product does not always mean that one is able to review it best. I am prefacing my review of Laws Of Illusion by Sarah McLachlan with that because I might be undervaluing it (though I suspect the two-disc version might not suffer so harshly if I review that). It is not that I am knowingly undermining my own review of Laws Of Illusion, but I am trying to be honest about it. That honesty forces me to admit that the album could grow into one that I consider a perfect album, with time. But, it's not there yet.

I mention this because most albums that I consider perfect albums, like Sophie B. Hawkins' Timbre and Heather Nova's Siren I knew from the first listen I was hearing something incredible and unlike anything the artists had ever released. There a few albums which I have listened to and it is through repetition that I come to appreciate the album more and what I initially viewed as flaws fade and the entire album experience resonates in a way that makes me consider it perfect. But on the first eight listens, Laws Of Illusion just isn't there yet. This is largely because the album appears to be much more about creating an album as opposed to creating hooks that will sell singles.

With thirteen tracks (despite what the back of the c.d. packaging claims) clocking out at only 49:22, Laws Of Illusion is arguably weakest in its lack of duration, though it does not feel as short as its running time empirically makes it. The album is largely the work of Sarah McLachlan - she wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, save "Bring On The Wonder." McLachlan provides all of the lead vocals for the album and she plays at least one instrument (usually the piano) on each track. McLachlan was not involved in the production of Laws Of Illusion, but because her producer is the co-writer for several of the tracks, it is probable that she got exactly the sound she wanted for the album.

And the album sounds amazing, though it is arguably a very different sound from where McLachlan was going on Afterglow. There is a far more intimate sound on Laws Of Illusion and the result is an album that sounds more personal, even when McLachlan is singing about the political. Far too produced to be a live album, though, Laws Of Illusion uses supporting vocals and a diversity of musical instruments as a real strength and while most of the songs are ballads which are piano, bass and percussion, the album does not sound so limited. To wit, my wife, who loathes virtually every female artist I play around the house, has enjoyed having this album on heavy rotation since I bought it yesterday. As she noted, Sarah McLachlan does not sound like anyone else on Laws Of Illusion and she sounds amazing. Instrumentally, the songs are most often musing piano works, but she shakes them up with more energetic accompaniment on songs like "U Want Me 2" and "Loving You Is Easy." The album opens with an atypical sound for McLachlan; more percussion and energy before her ethereal vocals begin.

Vocally, Sarah McLachlan seems to be stretching her range on Laws Of Illusion. She presents her trademark soprano voice on many of the tracks, but she goes from high to low on songs like "Love Come" (and the "Love Come (Piano Version)" which caps off the album as a "secret" track) while exquisitely holding notes that many other artists these days could not reach. On "Awakenings," McLachlan opens in the higher registers and plummets to the lowest notes she has presented and she makes the transition with a perfectly melodic presentation. Vocally, Laws Of Illusion is one of McLachlan's most impressive works and no two songs sound completely alike, though some of them have more musing sounds that fans of McLachlan will be familiar with.

As well, Sarah McLachlan continues her tradition of infusing the political onto her songs and that is something fans will no doubt enjoy. On "Out Of Tune," McLachlan creates a song that resonates much like "World On Fire" from Afterglow did. The song is more subtle, though, with lines that make the political intimate, like "Behind our door, there's no war / No burning towers, just hours of peace / Between us at least / No pretense no violence makes no sense / It isn't my heart that's grown cold / The same mistakes are getting old / I'm lost for words I don't know what to do" ("Out Of Tune"). Instead of being an anthem for commercials, she seems to make the argument that the personal ought to become reflected in our politics and that is more clever than many of the overt songs on the subject these days.

This is not to say that Laws Of Illusion is a highly political album. In fact, many of the songs are about love and loss, which are the traditional McLachlan themes. She mixes the two effectively with her lines "Loving, lying enemy / I have seen your face before / Never thought again I'd see / Didn't want to anymore / I remember your loving eyes, And the moonlit kiss / The evening lullabies, I would truly miss" ("Forgiveness"). "Forgiveness" catches a sense of melancholy that McLachlan's melodic voice is able to make sound beautiful and complex. The raw emotion throughout the album is quite compelling.

Poetically, Laws Of Illusion is a fine album that is almost subversive in its simplicity at times. When McLachlan sings "How long must I wait 'till I see your smile? / Might have been the moonlight / Caught up in the sparkle in your eyes / So wicked and I know I should go slow but its (sic) not in me to wait / 'Cause I'm alive and I'm on fire / Shot like a starburst into the sky" ("Loving You Is Easy") the simple lines are transformed into something that sounds and feels remarkably fresh and new. This is the ideal and McLachlan reaches it on many of the songs.

Conversely, few of the songs actually stand out. Instead, Laws Of Illusion actually holds together remarkably strongly as an album because none of the songs seem to be competing to be THE single that McLachlan is using to sell the album. The result is a collection of songs that blends pleasantly together and is bound to satisfy anyone who loves great pop-rock music with deeper themes and beautiful presentation. In fact, it makes one wish there were more of it.

All of the songs hold up: there are no truly overwhelming songs and no weak moments on Laws Of Illusion.

For other albums by great female singer-songwriters, please check out my reviews of:
Sheryl Crow – Tuesday Night Music Club
Dar Williams – The Honesty Room
Natalie Imbruglia – Left Of The Middle


For other music reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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