It’s been over a year since I posted the last installment of my “Top Ten Musical Influences” posts, leaving the end hanging. The list has probably grown since then, but the artist at number one in my list is Sarah McLachlan. I had heard of her, but never heard her music much until a friend introduced me to her music in August 1998. By that time her seminal album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy had been out for four years and Surfacing had been out for a little while. Sarah had also put together the first couple of years of the Lilith Fair festival tour at that point.
The friend loaned me a copy of the Canadian version of Sarah’s Possession single CD. It had two versions of the song on it – the standard album version and a souped-up hard rock version. They’re both good, but the rocked up version impressed me most, as I didn’t know any solo female artist who had produced something that aggressive. As I explored Fumbling and the back catalog of Sarah’s material, the first album, Touch, the second one, Solace and numerous single CDs, I was astounded at the depth and breadth of her songwriting and musical talent.
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, probably still her best work, has several absolutely first rate songs on it. Possession, the opening song, is a song Sarah wrote about a stalker that had latched onto her. Rather than ignore him, she explored the obsession, explained in her iTunes Originals commentary. Writing the song allowed her to put the episode behind her (the stalker died later in a car accident, cutting what could have been a very weird story short.)
Exploring yet another dark side of life, Hold On is a song inspired by a Canadian TV documentary about a woman who lost her fiancé (later husband) to HIV/AIDS. The lyrics tell a story of sadness mixed with hope of a better life beyond this one. Lyrics just don’t get any more pointed than this:
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
Will you take him when he comes to your door
Add in the urgent tone of Sarah’s voice and you have a song that has made me cry so many times in the past nine years I’ve lost count (not that I was keeping count in the first place, you must realize). As I was listening to it today, it made my heart ache for the chance I never had to say goodbye to Sue. While it takes an incredible amount of strength to see a loved one in pain and to watch them slowly leave, the woman in the documentary was able to do that. Then I realize that I’m far from the only one who has to deal with the sudden death of a loved one, and that we don’t get to pick and choose our pain. A phrase that keeps coming up in conversations over the past few weeks is “playing the hand you’re dealt”. It’s not what happens to us (which is out of our control), but how we respond (which is in our control) that is the defining characteristic of our humanity and faith.
Sarah remarks on her iTunes Originals commentaries that she wouldn’t allow a silly song on an album until Fumbling, because she wanted to be taken seriously. The light-hearted Ice Cream was added at the last minute. Even Ice Cream has its darker side though, hinting that all the fun could end if we screw up.
The parade of excellence on the album continues with Fear – a haunting falsetto exploration of insecurity and inadequacy.
But I fear, I have nothing to give,
I have so much to lose here in this lonely place
Tangled up in our embrace
There’s nothing I’d like better than to fall
But I fear, I have nothing to give
The album ends with the title track, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, another moody introspective piece.
All the fear has left me now,
I’m not frightened any more,
It’s my heart that pounds beneath my flesh,
It’s my mouth that pushes out this breath
And if I shed a tear I won’t cage it,
I won’t fear love,
And if I feel a rage I won’t deny it
I won’t fear love
The imagery in the chorus (the latter section) meshed very closely with the work that we were doing in my Masters in Management program at Antioch at the time. We were exploring leadership theory and group dynamics and much of the work centered on how emotions that individuals feel in large group situations represent a cross-section of the group at large. Emotions are often ignored, dismissed or swept under the rug in work situations, so that was really interesting to me. When I thought about the various stressful work situations, emotions do run high, and they do provide a lot of keys to a situation if one is willing to pay attention. It was all very esoteric, and I’ve forgotten more of the details than I remember, but it was a very intense time. One of the main lessons we learned was to trust our feelings and to look for who else in the group might be feeling what we were, and what those feelings represented. It was great to see a connection with Sarah’s song.
So there you have it. I finally completed the top ten.