Thursday, September 8, 2011

Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan (1-Disc) Is Fine, But There's A Better Version!

The Good: Good vocals, lyrics, instrumental accompaniment, production, duration
The Bad: The two-disc version is better and worth the attention of anyone who likes Sarah McLachlan.
The Basics: A generally pleasant compilation with two new songs, Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan is a good album usurped by a superior two-disc version!

Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan is a compilation album which was released two and a half years ago with no real fanfare and the only thing more surprising to me than fans bothering with the one-disc version is that the album did not do better. Riding high on her mainstream success from Surfacing, the Mirrorball single "I Will Remember You," and then Afterglow and Wintersong (reviewed here!), in addition to her Lilith Fair concert series, one would have thought that a compilation album like Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan would have been a slam-dunk commercially for McLachlan. Strangely, it did not seem to be. If that seems to contradict my ultimate "not recommend" of this album, there is a very simple reason for that. There is a two-disc version of the same album which has all of the content on this disc, plus a whole bonus album of music. Anyone who truly loves the works of Sarah McLachlan will want that and those who don't know, should pick that album up instead as it offers a broader selection of McLachlan's musical masterpieces or move right on to her new album Laws Of Illusion (reviewed here!).

With only sixteen songs occupying 67:43, Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan is very much the typical contemporary "Best Of" album in that it has fourteen songs, most of which are recognizable to American and European radio listeners for the last five years alongside two new songs, which McLachlan smartly puts at the back of the album. The work is almost entirely the creative endeavor of Sarah McLachlan, though, as she wrote or co-wrote every song on the album. As well, she provides all of the primary vocals and plays piano or guitar on each track. What she doesn't do is produce, but given that she has a long-time producer who produced this album as well as providing other instrumental performances on it, one assumes McLachlan is happy with the results.

For those who might not have heard the music of Sarah McLachlan, McLachlan is one of the understated rulers of independent pop-rock music for the last decade. Her piano and vocal-driven songs (mostly pop ballads) tend to be poetic, clear, and highlight the emotions of love, loss and the struggles that come with loss. As a testament to her quality - which was known longer in Canada than in the U.S. - listening to Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan took me back to some of the most tumultuous years of my life. Listening to the radio hits of Sarah McLachlan, which is largely what this album actually is, I recalled younger love, death, the torment of a loved one and the rising feeling that the world was changing and that I wanted to get involved in making changes to it. All of that came from listening to about nine of the sixteen songs and that McLachlan's music still has such power and resonance is an impressive thing.

Instrumentally, most of the songs are piano-driven. Songs like "Fallen" are deep and melodic, haunting in their tunes while on "Adia," the piano is used more as a support instrument to highlight the tune created by the vocals. Still, on some of her middle and later works, like "Sweet Surrender" and "World On Fire," it is the presence of the electric guitars which are most striking and that shakes the album up well. On her two new songs, "Don't Give Up On Us" and "U Want Me 2," McLachlan finds a new balance and has a more keyboard-driven sound.

Vocally, Sarah McLachlan is an amazing talent with a natural soprano voice. Indeed, one would pretty much have to not have listened to pop or adult contemporary radio at all in the last five years to have not heard McLachlan's amazing pitch and presentation of "Angel." That song is striking and indicative of her talents to both explore the higher vocal registers and make what she sings there sound perfectly clear. Still, McLachlan manages to keep from being predictable and it is the echoes and production enhancements on songs like "Hold On" and "Adia" which make those songs have a truly eerie punch.

Lyrically, Sarah McLachlan is an able poet and Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan shows that off remarkably well. Even though the album focuses on the known songs, there is a reason songs like "Building A Mystery" and "I Will Remember You" performed as well as they did. One of those reasons is certainly McLachlan's use of imagery in her songs, a trait she carries onto her new song in a more limited fashion when she sings, "Am I living alone here, / Or have I turned to dust? / It hurts, it hurts to wait for just a little love. / You must give me a sign love. . . I'll hold you through your darkest hour. / I'll be using all my power, / So I can reach you. / Oh my love, don't give up on us" (Don't Give Up On Us).

When she is not employing decent analogies and telling musical storysongs, McLachlan cuts through to the listener with direct language on complex emotions. McLachlan's music is often melancholy, but she often sings about hope in relationships. With lines like "So what are we saying / Our eden's a failure / A made-up story to fit / The picture-perfect world / The one with I do / And I love you / And we are made / For each other / Is forever over now" (U Want Me 2) McLachlan clearly and painfully expressed loss, but she recovers with a chorus that seems insistent on saving love. Love is the key to everything on almost all of the songs and it is the loss of love and self that make some of the songs, most notably "Fallen" truly horrific.

Despite having a decent poetic ability, even McLachlan falls into the trap of predictable rhymes on some of her songs. It is hard not to cringe reading the singsong lines "I knew you wanted to tell me / In your voice there was something wrong / But if you would turn your face away from me / You cannot tell me you're so strong . . . In the terms of the years that pass you by / In the terms of the reasons why" (Path Of Thorns). Even with some mediocre rhymes, though, McLachlan makes her words sound good.

Anyone who likes pop-rock that is deeper than most mainstream pop will find something to love on Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan. But any audience who will enjoy what is on here will find the richness of the additional music found on the two-disc version to be a much better investment. For only a few dollars more, listeners get some gems which might not have been played on American radio, but the listener will wish they had!

The best song is "Adia," the low point is "The Path Of Thorns (Terms)."

For other strong female artists, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Many Great Companions - Dar Williams
300 Days At Sea - Heather Nova
Timbre - Sophie B. Hawkins


For other music reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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