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Coming Close to Ecstasy With Little Sign Of Fumbling...
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy - Sarah McLachlan
Member Name: Hishyeness
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy - Sarah McLachlan
Advantages: Accomplished. Atmospheric. Evocative. Stunning vocals.
Disadvantages: None to speak of.
I have a confession to make. On a sweltering summer afternoon in July 1989, as I was leafing through some LP's at small independent record store in Little Neck, New York, a song came over the sound system. As I listened to the hypnotic and seductive strains of Sarah McLachlan's voice, I promptly fell in love. Twenty years on from her debut single "Vox", this exceptional artist remains as close to my heart as ever.
Her uniquely endearing voice - at times ethereal and achingly vulnerable, and at others bold and strong - heralds a remarkable talent that remains somewhat unrecognised and under-appreciated outside her native North America, except perhaps by her legion of loyal and adoring fans. Sadly, I have yet to see her perform live, and I am fervently hoping that the opportunity arises sooner rather than later.
Hailing from Canada, three-time Grammy award-winning singer/song-writer Sarah McLachlan's relative obscurity "over here" used to be a mystery to me. Perhaps she is simply too mature for Europe's pop-obsessed, shallow, showy excuse for a music business these days. She has always trusted in her talent and hard work to bring her success, as a result of which she as never had to compromise - no overt "sexing up", no faddy gimmicks, no backing male dancers in G-strings - just her talented musicians and her awesome, technically accomplished voice.
She is well-known in America for founding the all-female artist and band festival "Lilith Fair" which took place during the summers of 1997 to 1999, showcasing both established and (at the time) undiscovered talents such as Natalie Merchant, The Indigo Girls, The Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple, Paula Cole, Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega. A revival is planned for the summer of 2010, to include a two week tour of the UK and Europe.
Her songs have featured a fair bit in the movies, most recently in the 2007 Jodie Foster film "The Brave One" ("Answer"), City of Angels in 1998 featuring Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage ("Angel") and The Brothers McMullan in 1995 ("I Will Remember You"). She has also recently released a "Greatest Hits" album called "Closer", with two new tracks ("Don't Give Up On Us" and "U Want Me 2") which brings together most of her significant work to date.
Her third studio album, Fumbling Toward Ecstasy (FTE) was released in 1993 and has since proved to be her international breakthrough. It produced two successful singles - "Possession" and "Good Enough", both of which have stood the test of time and remain firm favourites with her fans fifteen years on.
The dominant theme of the album - and the common thread that binds most of the songs together, is that of longing - a dignified, restrained and understated longing for love - unrequited, obsessive and romantic - and for self-awareness.
FTE comes in two versions. The standard 1993 album release (£4.98 on Amazon) and the "Legacy Edition" released for the album's fifteenth anniversary in 2008 which includes two additional discs - "The Freedom Sessions" (also available separately) and the "Fumbling Toward Ecstasy Live" DVD (£17.09 from the same e-tailer). This review deals with the 1993 version only. The fold-out booklet in the CD contains a full set of song lyrics in the artist's own handwriting.
FTE is full of hidden gems, changes of pace and a fair bit of experimentation with different musical and vocal styles. However, the one constant remains McLachlan's poignant and evocative voice, which, thankfully, the arrangements and harmonies never dominate. Following is a selection of songs from the album, which are fairly representative of its quality and depth.
The first single from the album, heralded by organ chords faintly reminiscent (but in no way similar to) George Michael's "Faith" is a haunting narrative written from the perspective of an obsessive fan, who seeks to possess the object of his affections. It's a perfect showcase for her unique, lilting voice.
McLachlan wrote the song after receiving a fair bit of unwanted attention from obsessive admirers - one fan (who later committed suicide) even sued her, claiming the song was based on his love letters. In interviews, she has credited this song as her "therapy". In a small way, its subject hits closer to home than many of us would admit - as fans, sometimes we are guilty of idolising and objectifying the artists we love. This song provides us with a sense of perspective.
"Oh you speak to me in riddles and you speak to me in rhymes, my body aches to breathe your breath, your words keep me alive."
> Good Enough
This is an achingly emotional narrative which I number amongst my favourites. The haunting piano and gentle drum beat and guitars accompany McLachlan's voice perfectly. The song seems to be about someone whom she cares for deeply, but who is going through a tough time. The lyrics are a bit ambiguous, but hint at an abusive relationship - "it's not the wind that cracked your shoulder and threw you to the ground." A masterful combination of melody, arrangement, harmonies and lyrics.
"Don't tell me I haven't been good to you, don't tell me I haven't been there for you, just tell me why nothing is good enough".
> Hold On
This starts simply, with twanging guitars and a swish of cymbals, before McLachlan sets the sombre tone, entreating the listener to "Hold on, hold on to yourself, this is going to hurt like Hell". The opening line leaves you in no doubt that a perfect storm is brewing for the person she is singing to, and all this person can do is brace themselves and prepare for the worst. An inspirational song of support and friendship through rough times, and a kindred lyrical spirit to the likes of Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel's timeless duet "Don't Give Up".
"So now you're sleeping peaceful, I lie awake and pray that you'll be strong tomorrow and we'll see another day and we will praise it and love the light that brings a smile across your face."
> Ice Cream
It says a lot about McLachlan's talent that she can explore themes as deep as those in the preceding "Hold On", yet still get away with the cheerful frivolity of a song such as "Ice Cream". This is simple, pure, mischievous fun and needs no elaborate analysis. Love, ice cream and chocolate. Just enjoy it.
"Your love is better than ice cream, better than anything else that I've tried. And your love is better than ice cream, everyone here knows how to fight."
> Fumbling Toward Ecstasy
The title track is a quiet, wandering, and meandering effort which provides a fitting finale to the album, if not quite the ecstasy promised in the title. Introspective and emotional, McLachlan's heady refrain "I won't fear love" seems to suggest someone who has accepted that love is not a fairytale, and you need to accept the smooth with the rough. This one is a grower, It didn't impress me at first, but it stuck in my head after a while.
"All the fear has left me now, I'm not frightened anymore. It's my heart that pounds beneath my flesh, it's my mouth that pushes out this breath. And if I shed a tear I won't cage it, I won't fear love..."
Persevere with this track, as after it ends, and following a short musical interlude, the album serves up a delightful treat - an acoustic version of "Possession" with McLachlan playing the piano herself as the only accompaniment. Stripped back, slowed down and laid bare, this is Sarah at her finest. A hidden gem.
"Into this night I wander, it's morning that I dread. Another day of knowing of the path I fear to tread. Oh, into the sea of waking dreams, I follow without pride, nothing stands between us here - and I won't be denied..."
If you have never heard Sarah McLachlan before, then this album is a perfect introduction to her music. In the interests of brevity, I have passed over some excellent songs - with "Wait", "Plenty", and "Fear" all worthy of mention and investigation. FTE is a captivatingly atmospheric and lyrically accomplished album which fortunately doesn't live up to its title - this is a sure-handed, confident and engaging work - there are no signs of fumbling anywhere to be found.
FULL TRACK LISTING
Good Enough (5:03)
Hold On (4:09)
Ice Cream (2:44)
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (5:48)
Possession (hidden track - solo piano version at 5:49)
© Hishyeness 2009
Summary: McLachlan's breakthrough album and easily one of her best.