For a musician whose record sales have topped 40 million worldwide, Sarah McLachlan has proven surprisingly easy to forget about. The lengthy gaps between her album releases must surely exacerbate this process; her latest release, Laws of Illusion, is her first album of all-new material since 2003’s aptly-titled Afterglow, itself a six-year shadow of McLachlan’s commercial and artistic peak, 1997’s Surfacing. In the increasingly frantic musical marketplace, such long absences from the fray do not lend themselves to solidifying one’s brand.
Her ethereal aesthetic and breathy mezzo-soprano vocals contribute further to this ghostly impression. Each line seems to evaporate as McLachlan sings it, leaving songs that quiver invisibly like distant air on a scorching summer’s day. More than anything, the authoress of “I Will Remember You”, that go-to soundtrack for sappy retrospective slide shows and montages, simply hasn’t provided much reason for us to remember her. Although McLachlan never exactly scorched observers with the blazing white heat of her singular artistry, she definitely possessed a capacity to charm, beguile, and even mildly surprise them on occasion. Even if her aesthetic gifts and choices aligned her with a more adult-contemporary sound, the Canadian songstress could muster an intellectual edge now and again.
Surfacing’s signature hits serve to demonstrate this. “Building a Mystery” slipped into light-anthemic territory often enough, but the lyric sheet is replete with shamanistic religious imagery (“A cross / From a faith / That died before Jesus came”), to say nothing of a seismic f-bomb. Funeral fave “Angel” may have been a ready-made piano ballad cliché, but its word-images are exquisitely poised on the knife’s edge of McLachlan’s rich precipice of a voice (“You are pulled from the wreckage / Of your silent reverie”). More than anything, there was an artistic appetite to the young Sarah McLachlan, a creeping urgency that could sometimes belie her music’s lite-FM tendencies. At the very least, even if you expended your music fandom on something more fashionable (and I certainly didn’t), you could still appreciate why this talented young woman had hit it big.
Now a slightly older but still talented woman (not to mention a single mother of two), McLachlan seems resigned to lay a tentative claim to AOR pop-rock supremacy once every half-decade or so. Laws of Illusion is certainly not as arresting or as bold as some of the early highlights of her career. The album’s contrast with McLachlan’s achievement of thirteen years ago is exemplified by a comparison of their covers. On Surfacing (a title borrowed from a novel by fellow Canadian feminist icon Margaret Atwood), an indistinct, short-cropped McLachlan closes her eyes to the darkness that surrounds her, but seems internally at peace. On Laws of Illusion’s mildly ridiculous cover, a glamorously made-up McLachlan puts on the glitz as she lies, seductively recumbent, on the curve of a paper moon.
The latter album embodies the sparkly image that introduces it. It’s brittle rather than fragile, sleepy rather than dreamy, airy rather than ethereal. It opens solidly enough with the reasonably forceful “Awakenings”, as McLachlan’s longtime producer Pierre Marchand builds up a rich and nearly-epic sonic tapestry. It’s not quite powerful enough to overcome the lyric’s lame climactic rhyme of “sorrow” and “tomorrow”, but it stands above the shiny folk-rock pabulum that follows it.
“Follow” is the operative word. There’s little on display here that bothers to carve new grooves in the hoary old dead trunk of adult-contemporary rock. “Loving You Is Easy” seems to promise a bit of rhythmic jauntiness with its opening drum beat, and “Love Come” catches the ear with some nifty initial production, but neither tune ultimately goes anywhere that isn’t glossy and well-trodden. These diverting songs are accompanied by multiple iterations of McLachlan’s established formula: sleepwalking piano, squeaky-clean guitar flourishes, angelic backing vocals, and Marchand’s impossibly-polished sheen. “Changes”, “Forgiveness”, and “Illusions of Bliss” are made from these constituent parts and little else, and where even such bland compositions may have once been elevated by McLachlan’s vocal abilities, our heroine seems content to simply sing them and get out of the way.
It’s not all quite so disappointing. The penultimate track is a medieval-harmony take on British singer/songwriter Susan Enan’s “Bring on the Wonder”. McLachlan provided backing vocals on Enan’s original recording, and Enan returns the favor by graciously providing Laws of Illusion with its sole memorable moment. There’s a strong sisters-in-song vibe to the tune that evokes McLachlan’s true claim to fame, Lilith Fair, the light-feminist folk-rock concert tour that McLachlan and Nettwerk Records honcho Terry McBride are reviving this summer. The commercial convergence of the new album and the resurrected tour are obvious from a marketing perspective, but they also serve to remind us how much McLachlan’s output has changed in the decade since the last Lilith Fair. Her hunger and exigency are either gone or channeled into other, non-musical streams, and she’s left us with little to remember her by.