Friday, March 1, 2013

Sarah McLachlan's Magnum Opus Turns Out Not To Be: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

The Good: Lyrics and voice, Moments of music
The Bad: Largely overproduced
The Basics: Falling short of the masterpiece fans want to believe it is from the preponderance of overproduction elements, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is good, but not as good as it should be.

I cannot think of an album I have been looking forward to listening to more in recent memory than Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. It has been hailed by fans as McLachlan's masterpiece and hearing rarities and live versions of some of the songs from this album in the last few days, I went into this listening experience with genuine anticipation. I was eager for this album and now that I've listened to it four times, it's with a weird sense of sadness that I write my disappointment.

To be sure, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is better than most pop-rock albums out there, certainly in today's market. To be equally sure, it is not the master work of Sarah McLachlan that her loyal fans from her earliest days would have us believe. The irony of this whole situation is that most of the fans and reviewers who trumpeted Fumbling Towards Ecstasy berate the follow-up, the commercially successful Surfacing as being somehow less artistic than this earlier disc.

I find this ironic because in the last three days, I have listened to three different versions of Sarah McLachlan's song "Possession" (the first track on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy). On Rarities, B-Sides and Other Stuff, McLachlan has a terrible mix where the song is redone as a dance track. On Mirrorball it is acoustic, echoing and haunting. Here on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, McLachlan creates the track as a produced number that uses artificial reverb, backing instrumentals that include keyboards and a drum machine. The net result is that the song is overproduced for the starkness of the lyrics.

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy suffers as a whole album from numerous tracks that fill the music up with sound - usually more instruments, reverb or other production elements - that detract from the pure emotion of the lyrics. Say what you will about Surfacing, but overproduction is not a problem on such wrenching emotional tracks as "Adia," "I Love You" and "Full of Grace." Indeed, as a slightly more mature artist, McLachlan seemed to feel more free to experiment with a more minimalist musical accompaniment that accented the starkness of the lyrics of love and loss that she sang about.

To be sure, those thematic elements are present on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Lyrically, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is clearly where McLachlan is reaching the peak of her profession as a poet, a peak she maintains her position at on Surfacing and Afterglow. McLachlan is a master of emotive expressiveness with a strong grasp on imagery and creative diction. For example, on "Wait," she vividly paints a picture by singing "Under a blackened sky far beyond the glaring streetlights / Sleeping on empty dreams the vultures lie in wait. / You lay down beside me then / You were with me every waking hour / So close I could feel your breath." She is captivating with her language and her mastery of poetics is one of the best in the industry.

Vocally, McLachlan is amazing. Her alto voice is articulate and expressive, reaching into the higher ranges deftly. On "Ice Cream," makes such simple lines like "Your love is better than ice cream / Better than anything else that I've tried / And your love is better than ice cream . . ." come alive with the light presentation she sings them with. She has a voice that is uncommon in pop-rock and it's easy to tell that this is a woman who has immense talent.

The unfortunate thing is that here she is not so free to express that amazing talent. "Hold On" suffers because the music is so full. The lyrics are sharp and contain the subtle menace when she warns, "Hold on / Hold on to yourself / For this is gonna hurt like hell." When this same line closes the track, it's emotional resonance is gutted because of the overbearing keyboards and drums. (The superior version is her live take on this on Mirrorball.)

It's easy to see why fans are so excited about Sarah McLachlan; she is a genuine artist. She wrote all twelve tracks on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy - save one which she co-wrote - and she provides all of the vocals for the album. As well, she plays guitars, piano, and acoustic guitars on the various tracks. Even without any production credit on the album, McLachlan is integrally involved in generating this music; it is HER expression of emotions. She even did artwork inside the liner notes. It's easy to see why fans are so much in love with Sarah McLachlan.

It's also hard to deny that many of them are blinded to how overproduced this album is, especially in comparison to the lyrics. While "Ice" has a stark sound that resonates with the lyrics, it is an exception on the album. While Sarah McLachlan is less produced on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy than, say, Janet Jackson and UB40 who were having commercial success when this album was released, it is still overproduced for the style of music. Hearing these songs with the emotional intimacy of the lyrics and the bassline musical tracks would be a treat and would have produced the masterpiece fans want.

Alas, this falls just short of that.

The best track might well be "Ice Cream," (actually the hidden version of "Possession" at the end is actually better!) though the worst is the fairly unmemorable "Mary," which left no real impression even after multiple listens.

For other Sarah McLachlan reviews, check out my reviews of:
Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff
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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