Sarah McLachlan: Fumbling Towards Ecstacy

Sarah McLachlan
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

By all rights, 1991’s Solace should have broken Sarah McLachlan into the mainstream. By the time of its release, McLachlan had worked out some of the stylistic kinks of her debut, 1989’s Touch, opting for a more direct sound. Solace featured McLachlan in full-bodied pop flight, although songs like “Black”, with its noir-ish foghorns-in-the-night gloom, might have been too dark for some folks. Strangely enough, “Possession”, the song that keyed people into 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, comes from the perspective of a stalker. “Good Enough”, which was also a hit, deals with domestic abuse. So maybe subject matter wasn’t as important as the way it was presented, as Fumbling Towards Ecstasy remains a truly gorgeous album.

The album’s success also stems from one of McLachlan’s underestimated talents: her ability to anchor her best songs with evocative lines that anyone can claim for their own purposes. For all of “Possession”‘s disquieting imagery, its centerpiece lyric — “I will be the one to hold you down / Kiss you so hard / I’ll take your breath away” — can be interpreted as a healthy statement of passion. It’s certain that, in the tradition of songs like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”, listeners who latched onto “Possession” did so because it felt like a positive love song. And who (apart from maybe McLachlan herself) is to say they’re wrong? Even “Good Enough”, with lyrics like “It wasn’t the wind that cracked your shoulder and threw you to the ground”, can be romantic from the viewpoint of someone wishing to come to the rescue and make things better. That kind of tension seems only natural for an album that borrows its rapturous-sounding title from a line in a Wilford Owens poem about World War I (“Quick boys, in an ecstasy of fumbling we fit the masks just in time”).

Blending a little of Touch‘s ethereal wispiness with the earthiness and emotion that McLachlan found on Solace, Ecstasy ranges from soaring pop (“Possession”) to delicate balladry (“Mary”) to mournful sax-laced meditations (“Ice”). Throughout the record, McLachlan pushes her vocals into rarified territory, sometimes losing notes in brief moments that feel like the song simply can’t hold her emotions. McLachlan certainly wasn’t the only female songwriter pushing herself in such ways during the ’90s (a decade that also saw the rise of artists such as Tori Amos, Beth Orton, Paula Cole, and a solo Natalie Merchant), but she brought everything together on Ecstasy in a way that few others could. Ecstasy is the sound of an artist’s talent and vision meeting the perfect production.

McLachlan followed Ecstasy with the hugely successful Surfacing, and began a steady retreat from the spotlight due to marriage, family obligations, and philanthropy. She’s released the occasional album and shown up performing a guest spot here, some soundtrack work there, but her reduced visibility has made Ecstasy something of a forgotten album — which is strange, considering its role in helping McLachlan launch high profile ventures such as the Lilith Fair festival. Legacy’s Deluxe Edition seeks to remedy this situation by providing not only Fumbling Towards Ecstasy in gorgeous packaging with pre-Raphaelite fontwork throughout the liner notes, but also by including The Freedom Sessions (expanded by one track) and the Fumbling Towards Ecstasy: Live DVD (augmented with an electronic press kit, a photo gallery, and three videos).

The Freedom Sessions, a collection of bare-bones demos and alternate tracks from the Ecstasy sessions, has always been a satisfying addendum. As for the live DVD, it too has always been a pleasant companion to the album, although it really doesn’t hold many surprises, despite the high quality performance. This Deluxe Edition attempts to paint Ecstasy, The Freedom Sessions, and the live DVD as equal parts of a trilogy, but it’s more accurate to say that Ecstasy is the large celestial body orbited by the other two. Also, this is material that most serious McLachlan fans already own, and it’s hard to say that the new bonus material is significant enough to make very many people trade in their old copies. A quality presentation in every way — from the packaging to the sound — but it doesn’t seem to serve McLachlan’s die-hard fans (the ones most likely to spring for a release like this) very well.

RATING 8 / 10