New York Times, August 18, 1997
Sarah McLachlan: Between Two Worlds
By SIA MICHEL
Macho music is out and empathy is in, according to the barrage of media attention given the folk-pop songbirds of this summer's Lilith Fair.
The current female singer-songwriter explosion led by artists like Jewel, Meredith Brooks and Paula Cole is a flashback to the early 1970's, when the pop charts were chock full of confessional singers with seemingly little to confess and even less that they cared to protest. Consider Jewel's post-hippy ditties: they recall the bubble-gum folk of Melanie, but accessorized in stiletto heels instead of roller skates.
Sarah McLachlan, the driving force behind Lilith, however, is something of an anomaly.
On first listen, the songs on "Surfacing" (Arista/Nettwerk), her lushly atmospheric new album, are just as catchy, well-crafted and seemingly empty as those of her peers.
But a closer listen reveals an interesting ambivalence. The 29-year-old Ms. McLachlan straddles the fence between two worlds: mainstream pop and alternative rock. She wants both commercial clout ("Surfacing" has remained in Billboard's top 10 since its release last month) and an artsy cachet. Her ambition is understandable, but her earnest, irony-free sensibility seems ill-suited to the cynical navel gazing of alternative rock.
This tension is evident in statements Ms. McLachlan has made about the album.
She says it is about both "finding her center" and "facing ugly things" about herself.
The problem is that aside from a few references to self-doubt and feeling "so low," Ms. McLachlan seems uncomfortable about revealing any truly dark feelings. "We are born innocent/ We are still innocent," she sings wistfully on the power ballad "Adia." Even her one issue-oriented song "Angel" goes over the well-trod topic of heroin abuse in the rock world.
Ms. McLachlan's life lessons are so wrapped in Hallmark poesy and self-help jargon that they never move beyond the "be yourself" of the insistently catchy single "Building a Mystery."
But Ms. McLachlan is an accomplished songwriter with a gorgeously ethereal and versatile voice. Combining plaintive melodies and minimalist guitar and piano, "Surfacing" is unabashedly pretty. Not surprising, Ms. McLachlan is a touchstone for the mystical young women who drape scarves over lamps but consider themselves too cool to listen to the New Age diva Enya.
Until recently she was regarded as a minor artist with a platinum record -- "Fumbling Toward Ecstasy (1994) -- under her belt.
But Lilith Fair, a savvy mix of activism and self-promotion, made her not only a household name but also an unlikely feminist symbol. The song "Sweet Surrender," which opens with alarm-clock buzzing noises and country-rock guitar, finds Ms. McLachlan prostrate before a lover, crooning "Sweet surrender is all that I have to give." Such a sentiment sounds oddly dated, more 50's than 90's. In contrast, alternative artists like Ani DiFranco and P. J. Harvey have spent the better part of the decade using them to explore gender roles and other issues.
To Ms. McLachlan's credit she evokes a vivid emotional landscape.
"Surfacing" is infused with an acute sense of yearning.
On the melancholic "Witness," her most effective song, she longs for something -- a belief or an epiphany -- to lift her "out of darkness/ out of doubt." Perhaps she hasn't found what she's looking for, but at least she's trying.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times
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