Last fall marked the 20th anniversary of the release of “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy,” Sarah McLachlan’s attempt at the difficult third album. It was the record that catapulted her to international acclaim, and with good reason — it was something so different, so remarkable, so excellent that the world pretty much had to sit up and take notice. Though her subsequent albums, “Surfacing,” “Afterglow,” and “Laws of Illusion” may or may not have been more commercially successful, I’ve always felt that “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” was the high-water mark. In the past I’ve complained, bitterly, that the three follow-ups to “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” all felt very much the same, that I have problems distinguishing between the various tracks, and that they aren’t really that good.
I marked 20 years of having “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” in my life by going to the ballet — Alberta Ballet had put together a meditation on a young woman’s experience with love and loss as told through Sarah McLachlan’s music. I started to write a long post about the performance itself, and how it held up from a music fan’s perspective, but was interrupted by the arrival of my son about a week later, so that post never really got finished. (Note to self: finish that post.) Six months after that, I discovered that Sarah was releasing a new album, and my first thought was, “Oh dear, here we go again. I’m going to buy it and be disappointed.” Because, you know, I’m always thinking I’m going to run into the next version of FTE. It’s what I want. I want to spend a year and a half listening to one album over and over and over again. I’ve had Rose Cousins and Ruth Moody and Hannah Georgas to obsess over recently, but I’m on the hunt for something new, and by new I mean something old.
So along comes “Shine On,” the seventh (eighth, if you count “Wintersong,” which I don’t, so seventh) studio album. Will “Shine On” break the curse of the samey-sameness of the previous three albums? Will I finally find something worthy of my devotion to this artist after twenty years of pining for an old feeling?
Answer: no. Of course not! But you know what? It’s OK, because “Shine On” is actually a good album in its own right. And I don’t need it to be another FTE; that phase, it would seem, has passed. Though I still love FTE, and it’s still probably going to be the music I want to be listening to when I die, it has taken me twenty years to figure out how to be all right with new stuff not being the same as the old stuff. Which makes “Shine On”‘s release ironic, because it basically is the follow-up album to “Surfacing,” at least in terms of how the whole album feels and sounds. But hey, before you get all judge-y, this is OK, because it represents some kind of actual progress and growth!
It didn’t start out promising. “In Your Shoes,” the title track, is too obviously commercial for my tastes. It’s not a bad song, exactly, and the message behind it (“you go, girl!” basically) isn’t a bad thing to say out loud, but it’s not my cup of tea. “Flesh and Blood” is loud, louder than anything she’s made in a while. “Monsters” is where the album gets going — ostensibly about the obnoxious people who show up in your life under the guise of being awesome, the song is catchy, contains a nifty little hook, and a darkly funny joke for songwriters: “There’s a wolf stalking in sheep’s clothing / tells me he’s the real thing / think what your life would be missing / if you didn’t have him to sing / to sing about.” Um, yes, what she said.
“Monsters” is followed by a couple of excellent tracks; “Broken Heart” is one of the stand-outs for me: a bluesy-country song heading back into the traditional Sarah McLachlan territory of loss, heartbreak, and trying to haul oneself out of the muck. I’m also quite partial to “Surrender and Certainty,” which brings to mind a quote from an old friend of mine (“predictability comes by habit, stability comes by choice”). “What’s it Gonna Take” asks questions about defining oneself in the face of expectation, and though it’s not entirely dissimilar from the mood of “In Your Shoes,” it somehow manages to get past the rather blatant messaging.
Part of me wants to be more ambivalent about this album than I am. On the one hand, no, it isn’t as good as the older stuff. On the other hand… that older stuff is actually pretty old. Sarah’s been making music for over a quarter of a century now, and seems pretty happy having settled into her position as a mainstay of adult contemporary Lite FM radio, so who are we to judge her albums by the old standards? By any fair metric — considering “Shine On” for exactly what it is, no more and no less, with no consideration of the records that came before — the album is pretty darned good. It’s not going to make my top 10 anytime soon, if ever, but I enjoyed listening to it, some of the tracks have made it into playlists on my various devices, and I don’t know what else you really want from a new Sarah McLachan album these days.
Overall grade: B+