File Under: Ethereal pop with an unsettling lack of substance

Lo! No, not just lo, but behold, for the long-awaited new album by one of the leading breathless female vocalists of her day has finally wafted into stores. Airier than ever, but not without its weirder moments, Sarah McLachlan's fourth full-length studio CD re-establishes her as a glowing exponent of sonic beauty.

Frankly, it's about time. While the Canadian chanteuse has certainly kept busy organizing and co-headlining the all-woman (not all-breathless, but close) Lilith Fair tour, she has waited three long years to properly follow up her 1994 American breakthrough, the multi-platinum Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Unfortunately, she hasn't built much anticipation for her return with the disc's first single, "Building a Mystery," a bland song where McLachlan rather self-consciously sneaks in hot-button terms like "vampires" and "suicide" amongst her luxuriant vocals, not to mention an incongruous use of the f-word. You'd think she was trying to earn herself a reputation for being--perish the thought!--alternative, or something.

But all is not lost. Sarah and her longtime producer Pierre Marchand have developed a few new tricks since her last album, and the results are evident in the fresh, novel arrangements of several tracks. Odd rhythmic stabs of guitar introduce "Sweet Surrender," and then shift smoothly to become part of the backing groove, while the intoxicating "Black & White" percolates along in Sade-like fashion. Elsewhere, the staed vocals of "Full of Grace" create an alluring sonic blur, and the closing instrumental track, "Last Dance," combines bowed bass and a slightly out-of-tune piano with an eerie, high-sustained line on a bowed saw.

If only the songs themselves were a little stronger, a bit more distinctive. Nothing here compares to Ecstasy's infectious "Possession." And although Surfacing makes for a lovely listen overall, the lyrics don't stand up well under close examination: "We were born innocent. Believe me, Adia, we are still innocent," she sings ad nauseam in the chorus to the languorous "Adia." Even with some intriguing arrangements, something is missing here. Perhaps this brief album (ten songs and a running time just over forty minutes) will be enough to satisfy McLachlan's old fans. But she may have to do more than just resurface if she intends to gain new ones. --Bob Remstein

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