Happy 25th Anniversary to Sarah McLachlan’s third studio album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, originally released October 22, 1993.
For as long as I can remember, as an amateur (and now, professional) music aficionado, I’ve always gravitated more toward female voices, relative to their male counterparts. My mother spinning records on the regular by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, and Stephanie Mills in my younger days has a lot to do with it, I think. From an early age, I was acutely aware of—and interested in—female artists’ narratives and perspectives on life and love, a fact that in no small part has contributed to the premium I place on aspiring to be an empathetic son, brother, husband, father, friend and colleague to the women who have shaped—and continue to shape—my identity and world outlook.
Today, when people ask me who my favorite singers and songwriters are, I don’t skip a beat in rattling off names like Neko Case, Billie Holiday, Jessie Ware, Nina Persson, Jill Scott, Lucy Rose, Sade, Kacey Musgraves, Karin Bergquist, Gemma Hayes, Martina McBride, and Sarah Cracknell, among a multitude of others. And as I think back roughly 20 to 25 years or so, to the awkward and restless coming-of-age period of my late teens, Sarah McLachlan immediately comes to mind as a voice that resonated particularly profoundly with me, which confounded more than a few of my musically myopic male friends at the time.
Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the classically trained multi-instrumentalist and versatile vocalist first came to attention with the 1988 release of her debut album Touch, which established her as a kindred musical spirit of sorts to enigmatic figures such as Kate Bush and the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. While Touch and its follow-up LP Solace (1991) rightfully garnered McLachlan critical and commercial accolades in Canada, widespread acceptance outside of her native territory had thus far eluded her.
All of this changed, of course, with her international breakthrough of a third album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Originally released on Canadian soil in October of 1993, with the US and worldwide rollout materializing throughout the following year, the 12-track set marked the second chapter of what would prove to be an enduring collaborative partnership with Pierre Marchand, who had produced Solace. Marchand’s melodic, multi-layered arrangements fashion the perfect backdrop for McLachlan’s crystalline vocals and evocative lyrics, all of which lend Fumbling an even more pronounced intimacy and emotional resonance than its precursors.
Ethereal album opener and lead single “Possession” gains steam through Marchand’s exquisitely crafted soundscape and McLachlan’s earnest ruminations, which belie the song’s more sinister underpinnings, as she frames the song from the perspective of an obsessed admirer who threatens, “I would be the one / To hold you down / Kiss you so hard / I'll take your breath away / And after I / Wipe away the tears / Just close your eyes dear.” Unfortunately, sycophantic fans were not simply fiction to McLachlan, and in fact, one such obsessive follower brought legal action against her, incredulously claiming that love letters he had mailed to her inspired the song’s lyrics. The case never closed, however, as the plaintiff took his own life before the trial commenced.
Throughout Fumbling, McLachlan traverses the fragility and resilience of the human heart with a refreshing, understated sincerity devoid of pretense. “Good Enough” explores the lasting impact that abuse has on one’s self-worth, while the foreboding “Circle” examines the cyclical nature of repeating the same mistakes that afflict those who remain relegated to “a life from which they'd love to flee.”
Reconciling loss in its various forms is a recurring theme across a handful of songs, the most poignant of which is “Wait,” a hauntingly beautiful lament for a relationship fractured by expectations that have gone unfulfilled, with presumed references in the song’s chorus to a couple’s failure to have a baby together: “When all we wanted was the dream / To have and to hold / That precious little thing / Like every generation yields / The new born hope unjaded by the years.” In the atmospheric “Plenty,” McLachlan acknowledges a relationship run afoul and a future forever altered, with cogently devastating lines like “I thought I'd be with you until my dying day.”
“Hold On” delves into what, for many of us, is tantamount to the realization of our worst nightmare: the loss of our partner. McLachlan inhabits the psyche of a distraught woman whose paramour is slipping away from her in lines like, “Oh God, if you're out there, won't you hear me? / I know that we've never talked before / Oh God, the man I love is leaving / Won't you take him when he comes to your door.” During her performance of the song captured for VH-1 Storytellers, McLachlan explained, “I was watching a documentary called A Promise Kept, about a woman who discovered her fiancé was HIV positive. And the story followed her and her husband, they got married, and he got progressively sicker. She took care of him right up until the end, and she was telling this story with such beautiful clarity and honesty. It struck home in a way that I couldn’t really describe except by writing this song.”
Amidst the melancholia that pervades the album, glimmers of hope do shine through. The sparse, piano blessed “Elsewhere” places McLachlan’s steady, reassuring voice at the forefront, as she validates the liberation and inner peace that derive from finding your voice and choosing to live your life the way you wish to, free from the scrutiny of others. The simple, savory love song “Ice Cream” is a sing-along crowd favorite at McLachlan’s live shows, while the closing title track “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” unfolds as a sublimely orchestrated declaration of opening yourself up to finding and embracing the love of another.
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy afforded Sarah McLachlan the expansive audience that she had deserved from day one. And she made good in transforming her newfound cultural cache into something driven by the greater good, which arrived nearly four years later in the form of the Lilith Fair festival. The wildly successful, three-year concert phenomenon from 1997 to 1999 celebrated the artistry and commercial viability of her female peers as a counterweight to the rigidity of the traditional music business patriarchy, summoning Girl Power in all of its glory and gravitas.