Review Summary: Featuring essential McLachlan tracks such as Adia, Angel, and Building a Mystery, 'Surfacing' is one of the Canadian singer-songwriter's best albums.There's always some reason to feel not good enough.
This album follows the popular Fumbling Towards Ecstacy
from 1993, where McLachlan details her experiences working with World Vision, a Canadian-sponsored organization that made a documentary that centered on child prostitution, poverty, and famine in countries in Southeast Asia (most notably Cambodia and Thailand). The album was raw, sincere, and deeply introspective. Even with these credentials, along with her successes that include the founding of the music festival known as Lilith Fair, it would be Surfacing
that pushes McLachlan to stardom in the adult alternative genre.
Released in the summer of 1997, Surfacing
is more or less Sarah's encore performance, and it drove her into the mainstream spotlight. Some may argue that this album's success is directly attributed to its release around Lilith Fair. With the assistance of producer Pierre Marchand, Sarah hammered out ten incredibly solid tracks with her soothing voice and beautiful tone. Yes, it's a shorter album (approximately forty-one minutes), but it further exemplifies that an album does not need to be filled to its eighty-minute brim in order to be a fully captivating listen.
The greatest aspect of Surfacing
upon listening is hearing Sarah's tremendous growth as a songwriter and a musician. It's no secret that Sarah has consistently written songs that touch the spirit of human existence and experience. She sharpens and narrows her focus for Surfacing
When asked what the album means to her, Sarah explains:
Surfacing is about me finally growing up and facing ugly things about myself. We all have a dark side; it's bullshit to say that we don't. At some point we're going to have to face that.
In short: if you are unfamiliar with Sarah McLachlan's work, use this album as your starting point.
To a casual or new fan, most will turn to her radio singles to pass judgment. In this case, it would be a brilliant move, as McLachlan's growth as a musician is best exemplified in these tracks. Masterfully incorporating piano, guitars, strings, and other assorted instruments is an obvious strength, and she executes it to near perfection.
The first example is the album's first track, Building a Mystery
, which is dominated with acoustic and clean electric guitar chord progressions. She flawlessly enters into each song, and she exhibits great control and tone with her voice, from her lower register to her falsettos. She playfully sings to a love interest throughout, but asks, "Can you look out the window without your shadow getting in the way?" Lines such as this haunt portions of her songs, but such is the magic of her lyrical arrangements: McLachlan effectively conveys images of light and dark, happy and sad, and black and white into her music. The guitar progressions are done impeccably well, especially in the intro and the instrumental bridge, which also features a clean guitar solo and McLachlan reprising the chorus. Reprising and ad-libbing portions of songs are yet another strength McLachlan showcases on this album.
were also singles, and are also two of the best tracks on the album. The former track has electronic foundations backed by solid basslines. Her practically angelic voice in the chorus melts with the instruments, which whimsically fall away as she croons in and out of each channel. The dubbed vocals that McLachlan employs help bolster the track, with the standard highhat-bass-snare rhythm driving the song when the electronic feel of the song dissipates. Adia
highlights McLachlan's musicianship with piano, but again, it is her voice and storytelling that take centerstage on the track. The standout portion of the song is the second half of the chorus, with Sarah's higher register shining powerfully over the instruments as she sings to Adia that "[W]e are born innocent... it's easy, we all falter... does it matter?" The percussion serves as the song's metronome with the shuffling snare and sporadic crash cymbals, but again, McLachlan's wispy voice and discussion with Adia are the integral keys to this song's engine: throughout the song, Sarah addresses her friend Adia, saying she could show her all the beauty Adia possesses, if only she'd let herself believe it.
Whenever the songs on Surfacing
are just McLachlan and her piano, it makes for absolutely chilling yet incredibly beautiful music. Do What You Have to Do
is a somber ballad, featuring this combo and the addition of cello. Flawlessly, McLachlan hits her higher notes with ease, singing that she has "the sense to recognize" that she can't let go, with "every moment marked with apparitions of your soul." Again, the piano is what makes this track captivating; even when Sarah isn't singing, her work on the piano adds to the elegiac mood of the track. The instrumental and vocal crescendos performed by McLachlan further emphasize McLachlan, not only as a vocalist, but as a musician as well.
However, far and away the best track on the album is the incredibly melancholy Angel
, which features only McLachlan and her piano once again. Her vocals, combined with the piano, soar in the most depressing aspect of the song - the chorus. In it, McLachlan sings to her friend ascending into Heaven:
In the arms of an angel, fly away from here
From this dark cold hotel room and the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage of your silent reverie
You're in the arms of the angel, may you find some comfort there
This track is a classic Sarah McLachlan track, much like I Will Remember You
is a classic song: it invokes emotions of many degrees, and McLachlan's voice is incredibly soothing, even if somber.
is an all-instrumental track, clocking in at 2:32. As predicted, the track features Sarah on piano, with a cello accompaniment. At 1:04, the next movement begins, with an interesting effect becoming more prominent between the piano and cello - it sounds like a whistle being blown underwater. The song slows to a faint decrescendo, and the last piano chord rings silent, ending the album.
The album falters only in a couple spots, mostly due to production and some passages of songs, such as Full of Grace
, seem to plod along and drag. The orchestral accompaniments typically add another dimension to the tracks, but can be either pushed too high into the mix or rendered practically inaudible in others. However, as a whole, the album is an easy listen from start-to-finish because each track segues flawlessly into the next without much thought.
is a necessity to fans of the singer/songwriter and/or adult alternative genre. The album exemplifies McLachlan's growth as a vocalist and musician to a spectacular degree. Again, for a newcomer to her music or a casual fan, this album is imperative to listen to because it showcases some of McLachlan's best material to date. The album, while rather short and does sport a couple rough patches, highlights McLachlan's lovely, radial voice and her proficiency on the piano, and is overall a beautiful listen.
Building a Mystery
Do What You Have to Do