Monday, April 1, 2019

100 Albums: "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" by Sarah McLachlan

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Sarah McLachlan
Title: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
Released: 1993
Genre: adult contemporary


Before Angel, before she was the patron sainte of sadness and puppy dogs, Sarah McLachlan was known as the woman who turned a letter from a stalker into one of the most seductive pop songs of its era. The true story there is somewhat more complicated--the lyrics to Possession were inspired by mail from obsessed fans, one of whom had the sheer audacity to sue her for "stealing" his work--but the fact that the song was composed from a place of fear rather than lust is wild. Suffice it to say, lines like "I would be the one to hold you down" read very differently in a man-speaking-to-a-woman capacity than vice-versa. Whatever that has to say about gender dynamics in 1993, I leave to the listener.

I seem to recall hearing Possession on rock stations, not just Top 40 stations, but Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is in no way an alt-rock album. It's pure singer-songwriter music, constructed (as opposed to band songs, when tend to be "discovered" more than written) with arrangements that vary a lot in instrumentation despite being similarly textured. The Vm-IV-I piano pattern under the verse of Possession, trilling the suspended 4th, is the kind of progression you arrive at very naturally when composing on an acoustic guitar. Similarly the sway of a song like Ice Cream evokes strumming, even though the final version is dominated by piano and drums. The lyrics are generally pretty abstract and imagist, but they're poetic and graceful.

Possession is the clear standout on the album--a piano-only version was included as a hidden track on the CD--and I don't think anything else in her extensive catalog is quite as good as that. But McLachlan certainly knows her way around a hook, and a number of songs will have you humming along. I'm particularly a fan of PlentyGood Enough, Ice, and the title track. Apart from the opener that threatens so [checks notes] "kiss you so hard I'll take your breath away," it's a remarkably chill record.

Further Listening: I don't have any of her other albums, but I've enjoyed some of her other singles, particularly her more driving and uptempo songs like Sweet Surrender or Stupid. She also contributed When She Loved Me to Toy Story 2 (although the song was written by Randy Newman) and you cried, I cried, we all cried during that montage.

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