Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is one of those albums I’m probably not supposed to like. It came out in 1993, and I fell under its spell, listening to it over and over again during a period from 1998 to 2000.

Why shouldn’t I like Fumbling?

It’s a distinctively feminine album and features songs about love and heartbreak, yes, but also takes a rawer edge to address issues like depression, recovery, and the pursuit of inner peace. All perfectly valid and interesting themes for an album. None of which probably should have resonated with a teenage boy from the suburbs. And I can’t even ascribe my adoration for this album on my older sister’s musical influence because I discovered it shortly after she had left the house for college (though I reckon her introducing me to acts like the Indigo Girls may have paved my way to appreciate McLachlan).

All that said, Fumbling is on the short list of my all-time favorite LPs.

The album opens with “Possession”--an ultra-intense anthem about not only loving someone but positively craving and needing that someone, probably to an unhealthy degree with the repeated mantra “I won’t be denied.” It’s an honest love song that I imagine anyone who has ever truly been infatuated can connect with. As a hormonally driven teen who rarely went more than a few weeks outside the grips of an all-consuming crush, I fundamentally get this song and all its desperation.

The stark instrumentation of “Wait,” paints a portrait of a protagonist at the brink, opining,

You know if I leave you now,
it doesn’t mean that I love you any less.
It’s just the state I’m in
can’t be good to anyone else like this.

To this day, I don’t know that I’ve heard a song better encapsulating the mixed emotions of person under personal, emotional distress, trying to balance care of themselves with their love for someone outside his or her own body.

Before long, the album comes to “Good Enough,” the song that, to my recollection, got the most radio airplay, and that may strike the best balance on this album between broken, vulnerable, soft, and intense. The song harkens to images of childhood and abuse, but is most clearly a song about recovery through love--not the kind of recovery that happens in an instant or based in any particular action or development, but over a lifetime of understanding and doing the work to heal.

Hold on, hold on to yourself
‘Cause this is going to hurt like hell

“Hold On” may have turned out to be the most versatile track on Fumbling recorded as a dark, emotionally ripping song on the trials of recovery, but then re-recorded in a variety of different styles by McLachlan over the years. Though I maintain that the original cut of the song is best, there’s an argument to be made that the more uplifting, borderline gossamer take, highlighted on McLachlan’s live album Mirrorball is just as good for all of its reinvention.

McLachlan follows up with “Ice Cream,” which against the odds may have become the best known track from this album over a period of years for so simply, directly, and potently getting to the heart of what good love feels like. She deftly sings of ice cream and chocolate and all of these other indulgences, and sources of solace, with the hook that the lover she’s singing to has exceeded comfort food and arrived as the sweetest thing of all.

Peace in the struggle to find peace
Comfort on the way to comfort.

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy wraps up with the title track a haunting, plodding song about the unlikely discovery of inner peace. As the cliché advice goes, you have to love yourself before you can rightly love other people. This song is about that process, and the fumbling nature of it all that so few of us get right until we’ve had so many tries (if we ever really get it right at all).

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 repetitions in this song sound like a mantra and, indeed, it feels like the culmination of an album about the search for self, the search for peace, and preparation to fall in love with oneself and another and a whole world.

Sarah McLachlan is better known for her follow-up album, Surfacing, which featured tracks like “Angel,” “Adia,” and “Building A Mystery.” I like that album, too, but whether its the lingering sense of sorrow, or the cleaner production work, there’s something I find inherently more commercial and inherently less satisfying about that album, as well as McLachlan’s efforts to follow. On a different note, while I like her recordings leading up to Fumbling I leave each of them with a sense that she hadn’t quite found her narrative voice yet.

And so, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, for me, marks the apex of McLachlan’s career. It’s the unconditional, raw voice of a woman hurt and stumbling toward the other end of a long, dark tunnel. And for what it’s worth, it’s among my favorite albums ever recorded.

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