Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Surfacing Broke Sarah McLachlan Into The Legitimate Mainstream . . . And Made Me A Fan! (My New Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: Voice, Lyrics, Decent music
The Bad: Liner notes are unhelpful, SHORT!
The Basics: With powerful lyrics, intimate vocals and backing instrumentals that support, not override, McLachlan's voice, Surfacing may well be Sarah McLachlan's masterpiece, as well as her greatest commercial success.

I've had Surfacing in my permanent collection for almost a decade now and I would have sworn that I had reviewed it, so I am reviewing it now and making Sarah McLachlan my Artist Of The Month! Surfacing may well be Sarah McLachlan's pop-rock masterpiece and it's certainly worth your attention.

With only ten tracks (the final one being an instrumental, even!), Surfacing is the album that introduced Sarah McLachlan to the mainstream - i.e. not just college radio or feminist audience - U.S. audience, though she had already been a legitimate hit in Canada. Surfacing is the album that brought audiences the singles "Building A Mystery," "Sweet Surrender," "Adia," and "Angel." It's rare for anyone these days to get four hits on the radio (not everyone can be Kelly Clarkson!), but McLachlan's Surfacing is such an ambitious musical endeavor that combined with her amazing marketing tool (Lilith Fair) at the time, it's easy to see why Surfacing was such a success. It's an album that if you still don't own, there's no better time than now to pick it up.

For those who have not heard Surfacing or are unfamiliar with the works of Sarah McLachlan, McLachlan is a true artist, with Surfacing being a true feat of her talents. McLachlan wrote or co-wrote all ten tracks. She provides the primary vocals for the tracks and plays electric and acoustic guitar and/or piano on each track (some of the tracks she plays a guitar and piano on!). She was integral to all levels of creating this album, though she was not listed with any producing credit. For the most part, though, Surfacing is the result of her creative enterprise and her vision for what she wants to express musically.

McLachlan's album is dominated by her smoky alto vocals. On some tracks, she ventures competently into soprano range, but for the most part, she is hypnotic in the mid-range for a female artist. Her voice is smooth and hypnotic on songs like "Angel," wrenching and hurt on "Adia," and the most mainsteam, understated vocalist on "Full of Grace" (one may picture her alone at her piano with just a beam of light illuminating her through a smoky club by the sound of the song). She creates a distinctly pop song with "Sweet Surrender" and is the embodiment of loss and loneliness with her stark "Do What You Have To Do."

McLachlan's primary musical instrument is her voice and she uses it to emote the powerful poetry she writes. Like Fiona Apple or Sally Ellyson (lead singer of Hem), McLachlan's voice is melodic, harmonizes perfectly with the instruments she plays her music on and is placed - soundwise - front and center for the listener by the production talents that created Surfacing (in this case Pierre Marchand). As well, McLachlan's Surfacing is able to present emotive and complex lyrics expertly because McLachlan is singing from her own heart. When one is singing their own works, they seem to be able to get around the more complex lines and concepts better than when presenting another's musical/poetic vision.

And as a lyricist, McLachlan is working near the top of her game on Surfacing. While the album deals with the pop music standards of love and loss, McLachlan's take on them are the adult version of the usually teen-dominated Top 40 market's themes. So, while the Spice Girls were cracking up the charts with juvenile hits like "Wannabe," McLachlan was softly emoting with, "Just you and me / On this island of hope / A breath between us could be miles / Let me surround you / My sea to your shore / Let me be the calm you seek" ("I Love You"). Damn! How was that not one of her four hits off Surfacing?! The point here is that McLachlan's work on Surfacing is not just comprised of the radio hits. The other tracks are equally worthy of your time and attention. The radio tracks are the teasers for the emotionally relevant, amazingly constructed songs that follow after.

McLachlan's songs are highly poetic and emotional and it's rare to see such talent rewarded. It's hard not to become entranced with hooks like "Spend all your time waiting / For that second chance / For a break that would make it okay / There's always one reason / To feel not good enough / And it's hard at the end of the day . . ." when it is placed next to a stark piano ("Angel"). McLachlan is brilliant at constructing music.

Surfacing is an intimate album and as such it has some musical limitations. McLachlan is cautious to not overproduce the album and as a result, the constant closeness of the vocals and the understated pianos and guitars (tracks like "Building A Mystery" and "Sweet Surrender" are the musical exceptions on the album) can make the listener feel lost in a very empty place - it's odd, isn't it how humans associate the closeness of a single voice as the dominant sound with the echoes one hears in a giant space in darkness, eh? McLachlan's sound is very much the echoes of a performer on stage as opposed to the closeness of a lover whispering into your ear. When the listener accepts that, this becomes an indispensable album.

This is an essential album for anyone who loves women, wants to hear a strong female voice and anyone who loves great writing. It is probably not for misogynists or those looking for a distinctly male take on pop-rock music. It is for those looking for a quiet, intimate musical experience, not a "rock to the end of the night" dance festival.

The best track (and it's a tough call) is probably still "Adia." The weak point is "Black and White," though I still find myself humming that track from time to time.

For other Sarah McLachlan reviews, check out my reviews of:
Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan
Laws Of Illusion


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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