Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Fumbling Toward Mediocrity

Once upon a time, Sarah McLachlan had the music world on a string. The Canadian delivered a couple of strong, passionate albums that earned lots of street cred but no mainstream play before exploding onto the pop music scene with 1994's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Behind the strength of the haunting "Possession," one of the '90s' signature singles, the record established McLachlan as the central figure in the decade's female singer-songwriter movement, culminating in the Lilith Fair tours, which she spearheaded.

Since then, though, McLachlan has failed to mature as an artist. Her follow-up album, Surfacing, was slickly produced yet strangely detached. The live record Mirrorball offered no substantive changes to the studio versions of her stuff, save the screams and sing-alongs of 19-year-old girls. And then she disappeared for a while to tend to being a mom.

McLachlan will return soon with a new album, Afterglow, and if the first single is any indication, listeners shouldn't expect too much. "Fallen" is marked by sappy songwriting and the same easy-on-the-ears, soft-rock resonance on which she's made a lot of scratch. Entertainment Weekly already weighed in with a B-minus, which is a tad generous.

Because McLachlan's performance on the song feels . . . lazy. Much like Natalie Merchant in her post-10,000 Maniacs days, McLachlan is relying too much on the unique tics of her vocal style. In moderation, this approach enhances an artist's sound and provides a wonderfully effective point of differentiation from other acts. But listen to Merchant's solo albums and McLachlan's more recent efforts, and what you hear are a pair of great singers who have decided to fall back on their voices as a way to distract from mediocre songwriting.

Perhaps Afterglow will turn out to be a stronger record than "Fallen" indicates. Even if it doesn't, McLachlan undoubtedly will sell a lot of copies, play to sold-out shows, and pop up on the late-night TV circuit. But it will still resemble a spring-training effort, as if she felt she didn't need to bring her A-game, knowing that her spot in the starting lineup was so secure.


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