Happy 20th Anniversary to Sarah McLachlan’s fourth studio album Surfacing, originally released July 15, 1997.
To say the summer of 1997 was a busy one for Sarah McLachlan is an understatement. On July 5th—ten days before she released her fourth studio album Surfacing—she officially launched the ambitious, all-female Lilith Fair music festival at The Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Washington. Due in large part to McLachlan’s vision and leadership, the event evolved into a resounding success, extending to more than 100 shows over a three-year run that concluded in 1999. For McLachlan, Lilith Fair represented the opportunity to elevate the profile of her musical sisters-in-arms in the historically male-dominated record industry, and reinforce not just their creative prowess, but their commercial viability as well.
It was an inspired and gratifying time for the Halifax, Nova Scotia born singer-songwriter, whose star was already well in the ascendant due to the warm reception that greeted Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993), her international breakthrough album that followed her debut LP Touch (1988) and sophomore effort Solace (1991). Though some misguided critics unfairly accused McLachlan of appropriating too much of her influence Kate Bush’s aesthetic on her earlier records, what the two sirens do hold in common is a distinctive vocal approach and sound, with a sly inclination for irreverence embedded within their songwriting for good measure. And the sublime Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was the shining manifestation of this.
However, Fumbling’s breakout success and the extensive tour orchestrated in support of it left its creator depleted and unsure of how to recalibrate herself to write and record another album. “I was completely messed up from being on the road for so long,” McLachlan confided to Matt Pinfield of MTV’s 120 Minutes back in July of 1997. “I’d lost a lot of myself, and I had a huge writer’s block. It was this big psychological thing of ‘finishing a record equals touring, therefore never finish the record,’ because I didn’t want to go back out on the road again.”
Fortunately, she persevered through the “slow drudgery” of the songwriting process that accompanied many of her fourth album’s compositions, and with the support of her longtime studio confidante, producer Pierre Marchand, Surfacing was born. As with their previous collaborations, Solace and Fumbling, Surfacing showcases Marchand’s penchant for propelling McLachlan’s crystalline and emotive voice to the, er, surface of the songs, never allowing the accompanying soundscapes to overwhelm her vocals.
Four official singles were released from the album, and five if you count BT’s remix of the gorgeously understated, ambient ballad “I Love You” released ex post facto in 2000. First up was “Building a Mystery,” a midtempo, guitar-driven song that finds McLachlan delving deep into the human dichotomy between our inward and outward selves.
The standout among the album’s many standout tracks (in your author’s opinion, mind you), “Sweet Surrender” is a soaring ode to casting off one’s insecurities and embracing one’s vulnerability in the eyes and arms of another, inspired by one of the 1990s’ finest films. "The initial inspiration came actually after seeing Leaving Las Vegas,” McLachlan explained during her January 1998 VH1 Storytellers performance. “Which I found to be this beautiful and tragic love story of these two people who were rather pathetic, both in their own rights, and yet completely accepted each other for who they were; all the beautiful things, and all the ugly things. That's a lot to do with what this is about, accepting ugly things, and being able to appreciate the fact that someone can love you for all those nasty things, especially when you think you are completely unlovable. There's some great comfort in that."
Arguably one of Surfacing’s most personal songs, the piano-driven third single “Adia” is McLachlan’s admission of her own flaws that doubles as an apology to a close friend. “I've always been hesitant to tell the true meaning behind that song because it doesn't paint me in the nicest light,” she recently shared during her 2016 Lenny interview. “But I'll tell you: I slept with—I fell in love with—my best friend's ex. Which is a line you try very hard not to cross….It was meant to be, but it was also a difficult time for me and my girlfriend. I betrayed her. She was my very best friend, and she's still my very best friend, but we had about a year where we didn't speak.”
Arguably Surfacing’s most enduring and universally familiar song, the starkly poignant, hymn-like “Angel” conveys empathy for the disenchanted souls among us who resort to drugs as their way to evade the pressures of the real world, an escapism that proves fatal for far too many. Though I can’t help but think of the late Chris Cornell when I listen to “Angel” now, McLachlan originally wrote the song in the wake of the 1996 heroin-driven death of former Prince associate and Smashing Pumpkins touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, brother of twin sisters Susannah and Wendy Melvoin of The Revolution (and The Family and Wendy & Lisa, respectively). McLachlan’s lyrics offer a much-needed lesson in non-judgment, best exemplified by the chorus, in which she reassures, “In the arms of the angel / Fly away from here / From this dark, cold hotel room / And the endlessness that you fear / You are pulled from the wreckage / Of your silent reverie / You're in the arms of the angel / May you find some comfort here.”
Though sometimes overlooked in the shadows of the four aforementioned singles, there are plenty of inspired moments among the remaining album tracks. The atmospheric, swirling “Black & White” rivals “Sweet Surrender” as my personal favorite, with its exploration of the soul-sucking antagonism between conforming to others expectations and being yourself (“Everybody loves you when you're easy / Everybody hates when you're a bore / Everyone is waiting for your entrance / So don't disappoint them”). Other highlights include the plaintive paean to unattainable love “Do What You Have to Do,” the slow-burning existentialism of “Witness,” and the sweeping strings of “Full of Grace,” in which McLachlan fights for a fading, fractured love.
Deservedly, and in no way surprisingly, Surfacing earned plenty of recognition at the higher profile awards ceremonies in 1998, snagging four Juno honors including Best Album to go along with two GRAMMYs for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance ("Building a Mystery") and Best Pop Instrumental Performance (album-closer "Last Dance"). Accolades aside, and coupled with the three wonderful albums that preceded it, Surfacing served as a harbinger of McLachlan’s continued commitment to refining her songwriting and expanding her artistry, all of which have been evident on the handful of LPs that have followed, including her most recent non-holiday studio affair Shine On (2014). And as I drop the needle on my copy of Surfacing for the umpteenth time, my hope for a new album from Ms. McLachlan soon is reignited in earnest.