Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sarah McLachlan Invites Listeners To Shine On As She Churns Out An Unremarkable Album!

The Good: Good lyrics, Good vocals, Generally decent sound
The Bad: Overproduced, Short, No hook, Nothing surprising.
The Basics: Shine On delivers Sarah McLachlan fans new music . . . without reaching any of her prior greatness.

The aspect of anticipation that works like a double-edged sword is that the eagerness one has for an anticipated project leads to heightened expectations. The more we crave something, the more we want it to be exceptional, superlative . . . the best we’ve ever heard from the artist, in the case of musical works. That type of anticipation usually leads to disappointment and as a fan of Sarah McLachlan’s works, that is where I am after listening to her latest album, Shine On. Even if I had not spent the last few weeks listening to the two-disc version of Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan (reviewed here!) and falling back in love with her body of work, I suspect that I would have found Shine On unfortunately dull.

To be clear, Shine On is not a bad or terrible album; it is an average album. Shine On continues in the direction that Laws Of Illusion (reviewed here!) was headed in, with artist Sarah McLachlan providing a more produced-sounding album. Shine On shows an evolution from McLachlan’s prior works . . . but not in a particularly compelling or enjoyable direction. Instead, Shine On lacks a spark, a zest or originality that makes it at all distinctive. The result is an album that is unfortunately forgettable and one where listeners are hard-pressed to choose superlative songs because the album blends together after multiple listens without any tracks that stop the listener and compel them to react in any meaningful way.

At a little more than forty-one minutes of music, Shine On is short, but it is very much the work of Sarah McLachlan. Ten of the eleven songs were at least co-written by McLachlan (collaborator Luke Doucet wrote the album’s final track, “The Sound That Love Makes”) and Sarah McLachlan provides all of the album’s primary vocals. Sarah McLachlan plays at least one instrument on each song as well. Interestingly, the liner notes to Shine On do not credit the album with a producer; each song has a producer and that seems to be the one creative credit McLachlan does not receive on Shine On.

Vocally, Shine On sounds only somewhat like a Sarah McLachlan album. McLachlan usually has forthright vocals that highlight her natural singing voice. Shine On seldom does that. To be clear, McLachlan sings clearly and articulately on Shine On, so all of her lines may easily be heard and understood. However, the instrumental accompaniment occasionally overwhelms McLachlan’s voice, production elements enhance her vocals and she seldom stretches her range on Shine On. Instead, Shine On feels like Sarah McLachlan is holding back, like she is giving just enough to be recognizable, without taxing herself.

As far as the instrumental accompaniment goes, Shine On is very much a nondescript pop-rock album. McLachlan alternates between faster and slower tracks, which makes for a listenable album, though it does not allow any one track to break out. In a similar fashion, the album itself does not “pop” as the songs listlessly move from one style to another. The album does manage to blend well between guitar and piano-driven tracks, though there is not a single distinctive tune that sticks with the listener after the first few listens.

Lyrically, Shine On is very much a typical Sarah McLachlan album. That means that, despite any failings, the album is well-written. Diverging from just love songs or socially-conscious songs, Shine On has McLachlan venturing into some new thematic directions. Take, for example, “Monsters.” “Monsters” has Sarah McLachlan singing about aging and disillusionment in a manner she has not before. With lines like “When we were young / There were always creatures lurking under the bed / A thousand year old dragon lived deep in the lake / And he said don’t be afraid / So you dove in . . . And don’t you know that there’s a wolf stalking in sheep’s / Clothing tells me he’s the real thing / Think what your life would be missing / if you didn’t have him to sing / To sing about” (“Monsters”), McLachlan transitions well from metaphor to reality to build her themes.

Shine On is not a complete thematic departure for Sarah McLachlan. Love and loss are common themes for Sarah McLachlan and on Shine On she does not disappoint. Loss transitions to healing and forgiveness on Shine On when McLachlan sings “If this is love beside me / I’m working on forgiveness / Laying the past down behind me / Letting go the ways that I’ve been hurt/ Let the rivers rise and rage / I’ll try and stand with grace / If everything is love” (“Love Beside Me”).

McLachlan blends the personal and political on Shine On. With the song “Brink Of Destruction,” McLachlan carefully weaves a connection between the plight of the world at large with the strength of the musical protagonist’s relationship. While it might be viewed as a simple love song, McLachlan infuses larger themes by playing external imagery with the intimacy of the relationship. There is strength infused in the lines “I hold fast to my destination I know that the road will be long / We light up the sky let the beauty define us and give, / Give it all we got / We’re two side by side with impossible dreams / taking a chance to let love in” (“Brink Of Destruction”) that McLachlan presents well.

Unfortunately, Shine On is short on impressive moments and much of the album would have stood just as well as part of a book of poems. The result is an underwhelming album from an artist whose infrequent albums in recent years has led fans (like me) to anticipate. Shine On fails to live up to the anticipated greatness that fans hoped McLachlan would deliver after years of work.

For other albums that are new this year, please check out my reviews of:
Lights Out - Ingrid Michaelson
Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions - R.E.M.
Louder (Deluxe Edition) – Lea Michele
High Hopes - Bruce Springsteen


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

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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