Saturday, April 16, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 857: Sarah McLachlan

Today’s game of Ulti was less than inspiring and my team lost badly. However, a day out running around with friends is fun regardless of whether you win or lose, so I declare it a success.

Is this next album a success? Er…kind of.

Disc 857 is….Afterglow
Artist: Sarah McLachlan

Year of Release: 2003

What’s up with the Cover? Sarah, looking beautiful and deep in thought. At this stage of her career McLachlan had sold a lot of albums, making me wonder why she still feels the need to wear some homeless man’s sweater.

How I Came To Know It: I’d liked Sarah McLachlan for years, so when this album came out in 2003 I just bought it as a matter of course. It ended up being the last Sarah McLachlan album I ever bought, but for all that I still like it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Sarah McLachlan albums. Of those five I put “Afterglow” in fourth spot, just ahead of “Touch”. And since this is my last Sarah McLachlan album here is the full recap, as tradition demands:

  1. Solace: 4 stars (reviewed back at Disc 249)
  2. Surfacing: 4 stars (reviewed back at Disc 758)
  3. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy: 3 stars (reviewed back at Disc 703)
  4. Afterglow: 2 stars (reviewed right here)
  5. Touch: 2 stars (reviewed back at Disc 624)

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

Sarah McLachlan is one of those artists that got a lot of airplay in my stereo for a decade or so, but now rarely makes it into the rotation. “Afterglow” is not as strong as some of her earlier records, but it still has its moments.

On the plus side, McLachlan’s voice is still strong on “Afterglow” fifteen years after she released her first album, “Touch.” She is also an underrated piano player. She tickles the ivory with an easy grace and just a dash of jazz sensibility.

Because of this I found myself wishing both the vocals and piano would be more forward in the mix. The album suffers from a holdover of mid-nineties production, with too many layers and fuzz to let the songs shine through. I get that this is pop and not folk music, but even a pop song needs room to breathe. Instead we get odd little blue notes spread with wanton abandon through songs that can stand on their own without the dubious benefit of such parlour tricks.

On top of that mid-nineties business, there is an excess loudness to the recording level which was a common malaise at the start of the oughts. The bass thuds heavily in every track, and turning it down just pushes the vocals and piano further into the corner.

There are strong moments on the record despite the limitations of the production. The best song by a wide margin is “Worlds On Fire,” which appears to be McLachlan’s response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The tragedy brings out the best in her, as she thoughtfully explores the vulnerability we all felt in the wake of the attacks, mirrored against whatever fault lives in mankind that allows people to commit crimes like 9/11 in the first place.

McLachlan’s lyrics have always edged toward the schmaltzy, but when she’s on her game she manages to stay genuine. On “Afterglow” she strays on both sides of the line. “Train Wreck” feels overdone with McLachlan playing the part of a drama queen that I would cross the street to avoid, and a production that is so overly smooth that the whole display feels like an act.

Better is “Push” which has its own fair share of overblown lyrics, such as:

“Every time I look at you the world just melts away
All my troubles all my fears dissolve in your affections
You’ve seen me at my weakest but you take me as I am.”

Blech. That is bad stuff, but because the song is a bit more restrained and Sarah’s voice has a natural warmth she gets you to believe it. Similarly “Answer” is well served by just being McLachlan’s voice and piano. The sound is still a bit thick, but it is stripped down enough to still feel intimate enough to match the lyrics.

The lyrical nadir on the album is also the album’s biggest hit. “Fallen” is packed with oddly mangled sentences structured to serve forced rhymes.

“Though I’ve tried I’ve fallen
I have sunk so low
I messed up
Better I should know.”

Better I should know” sounds like a line written by Yoda. Yoda is a great role model if you’re training to be a Jedi knight, but would be the world’s worst English teacher.

“Afterglow” is not a bad album, and as 2 star albums go I had a favourable experience. If you can cut through the dubious production decisions there are a few hidden gems that make the overall experience worth your time.

Best tracks:  World On Fire, Push, Answer

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