Lift Me From This Place
130 · 24 July 97
Sarah McLachlan: Surfacing
"You can't just keeping buying CDs!", my then-girlfriend, G., said to me, probably while standing in the doorway of the room I had already mostly filled with them, watching me shift almost the whole collection two discs to the right to accommodate East of the Sun, West of the Moon, by a-ha, and Walk Under Ladders, by Joan Armatrading. I looked at her blankly, trying to think what this sentence could mean. "What", she asked, with a rhetorical catch in her voice, "happens when we run out of room?"
"We'll get a bigger place", I said, slowly, still feeling like I was missing something.
"We can't just keep getting bigger and bigger places just so you can fill them with books and CDs!"
"Sure we can", I said, reflexively. Isn't that the point of a home? And then, quickly, in response to her frown: "CDs are small", an argument that would have been more convincing if piles of them weren't towering over me while I stated it. "I mean", I said, turning to survey the stalagmitic terrain of jewel cases encrusting all the room's surfaces, "I could fit twice as many as this in this room if they were just stored a little more compactly..."
And so, later, during one of our exercises in fantasizing, which usually ended in graph-paper sketches of a dream-house with a glass-bottomed swimming pool looking down into the underground squash court, and a motorized entertainment-wall that could travel from floor to floor, she handed me a pencil and asked me what my ideal high-density CD-storage unit would look like. Improvising, I drew a large case lined with CD-spaced shelves, whose doors were themselves shelves, both inside and out, so that the construction, when closed, was three layers of CDs deep. "Something like that", I said, and went back to puzzling over whether the helipad should be on the roof, or out past the soccer field. The relationship, in the end, didn't make it to the helipads-and-buried-squash-court stage, but G. snuck the CD-case drawing out of our idle-blueprints folder, brought it to a carpenter, and had the thing actually built for me as a Christmas present. This was an inspired gesture, and certainly one of the best presents anybody has ever given me.
Or the best-motivated, at any rate. The story, sadly, has an unfortunate plot-twist. (By the time G. had managed to sell her car to pay for the vault, I'd sold all my CDs to buy her a lowrider kit! No, that's not it.) If I'd known that the CD-vault and helipad sketches weren't equally hypothetical, I might have put a little more time and thought into the first one, and ten additional minutes of speculative consideration would probably have led me to the same realization that arrived, under its own power, the moment the vault was assembled and I started trying to fill it with CDs. Maybe it will have occurred to you already: If the back piece of the vault holds one layer of CDs, and the doors, which swing out from it, each hold two, then the doors weigh substantially more than the spine, and the vault's center of gravity is, to put it delicately, "somewhere out in front". In fact, with the doors closed, I have empirically determined that the center of gravity is an inch or two past the edge of the base; with the doors open, it moves forward to about where your skull will be if you're the one opening the doors. The vault, left to support itself, is like a particularly vicious seven-foot-tall trap for a variety of Heffalump that prefers New Model Army CDs to pots of honey, and it was discouraged from promptly taking my life only by the expedient of wedging a two-inch-thick board into the two-inch space between the top of the vault and our apartment's low slab ceiling. After an hour or two of reflection produced no better ideas, I pounded this wedge in a little further with a hammer, and left it. The vault hangs there, to this day, at about a three-and-a-half-degree angle, just under four inches from the wall at the base, and almost nine at the top. It looks dangerous, but unless the ceiling collapses, or the floor, it's not going to move. It remains to be seen, frankly, whether I can even pry it free once it's empty.
Intrinsic instability was only the first problem with the vault. Once I filled it up I also discovered that the weight shifted the stresses on the frame and hinges in such a way that the ingenious stays that held the doors closed, passively, when it was empty, no longer performed their offices. On the top doors they dangled helplessly above the contact points they were supposed to touch, so that the doors couldn't be kept closed, and on the bottom doors they hung too low, preventing the doors from being shut to begin with. In the spirit of accommodation, though, I latched the top doors closed with a half-empty spool of speaker wire, and balanced the bottom doors against each other, not exactly closed, but close enough. This second problem could probably have been solved a bit more elegantly, with latches of some sort, and even the center-of-gravity problem could probably have been overcome with some serious bracing and counterbalances, but perhaps not without increasing the weight of the vault to the point where it could no longer safely be placed in an upper story. Even without those problems, though, the vault is vexingly awkward to inhabit. The doors are hinged in the middle of their fourteen-inch depth, and swing out about ninety degrees, so with both doors fully open there is only an eighteen-inch gap between them through which to reach the thirty-three-inch back shelves. You may be narrower than I am, but this width forces me to turn sideways to reach into the vault, which in turn means that I can only reach most of the back shelves with one hand at a time. One hand, you might contend, is all you need to take a CD off a shelf or put it back, but the incessant millipedian march of CDs across the shelves, as new ones are inserted ahead of them, is nearly as important as extracting any given individual, and extremely cumbersome to effect without both hands. It's hard enough to see into the back corners of the vault, let alone reach there.
The last problem with the vault is that I've now filled it. It holds a lot of CDs, but I own a lot of CDs, and in this irresistible-force/immovable-object confrontation, the force wins. In the end the vault solved the "What happens when we run out of room" dilemma for me only temporarily. As a system, it does not scale. A second vault, were I foolish enough to build another one, could not be placed directly beside the first one, because the doors swing to the side when they open. The two cases would have to stand about a foot-and-a-half apart, at which point the vault's original intended virtue, space-efficiency, ceases to obtain. And the cathedral ceilings in my new home are, depending on where you stand, from three to sixteen feet too high to brace the vault against, regardless. So the vault will not be accompanying me on this move. Moving days are always farewells to something: old homes, old neighborhoods, old lives, formerly-groovy early-Eighties-style steel-dome lamps that you never liked because the domes heat up and burn you when you try to turn them off, a bike that's been chained to your porch railing through one too many New England winter, the five four-year-old tap-dancing prodigies who live upstairs from you. I have commissioned some drab, ordinary, personality-less new CD-shelves, oversized variants of the generic unfinished racks that they sell in big record stores, and they will line the wall of the study in my new home, functional but uninspired. It is always sad to see functionality and inspiration in conflict, sadder still when functionality wins. The vault was a little piece of a dream-world, and although I realize now that its premise was flawed, and most of the other pieces of that particular dream have been dismantled since, anyway, I still cling to even the smallest piece of even a discarded dream until the last possible moment.
The last possible moment, in this case, is when the movers arrive, which is not long from now. If I'd planned ahead a little better, the new shelves would be in place already, awaiting the boxes of incoming CDs like a Cephallonian doctor expecting the army of Italian occupation (analogy courtesy of Louis de Bernières' Corelli's Mandolin, my packing-break reading; sort of a cross between Catch-22 and My Family and Other Animals, as if Gerald Durrell were more paranoid, or Joseph Heller more sentimental). But I didn't, and so they are not. Indeed, they will not be ready for a few weeks, so I am faced with the possibility of having to survive until then with my CD collection in boxes. I doubt this is possible, and I'm boxing the CDs with their spines up, specifically to facilitate pawing through them to find something I suddenly decide I must hear or refer to, but I am also indulging my optimism by packing the thirty-disc carrying case I take on vacations with a selection intended, at least nominally, to sustain me until the shelves are done.
The first disc in the case will be Sarah McLachlan's new album, Surfacing. I've been waiting for this album for almost three years, ever since "Full of Grace", her first post-Fumbling Towards Ecstasy composition, appeared on Nettwerk's Decadence box set, and now that I have it I'm not about to let it out of my sight. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, for me, was the album on which Sarah ascended from promising to divine. There are several good songs on Touch, her 1989 debut, and even more on 1991's Solace, which to me is where Sarah's compositional style and distinguishing idiosyncrasies first grew strong enough to try to support an album's weight. Solace still sounds, though, to me, like an album that is as much Marchand's work as Sarah's. I can hear, in retrospect, more of her personality in it than I could at the time, but it is a record, in my taxonomy, on the order of Jagged Little Pill or Joan Osborne's Relish, a record on which the personality of the singer to an extent transcends the music instead of actually guiding it.
My only reservation about Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is that it's taken me a long time to fully appreciate it. I had two chances to put it on year-end top-ten lists, since I bought an import copy when it came out in Canada in 1993, and considered it again when it was released in the US the next year, but some twist of logic at the time convinced me that it wasn't as good as Living Colour's Stain or Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral, two admittedly striking albums that nonetheless haven't ended up meaning nearly as much to me. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is, I now believe, one of the decade's truly great recordings. It is the record on which Sarah sounds to me to have taken full control of her own music, like Kate Bush did on The Dreaming, Jane Siberry did on No Borders Here, Cyndi Lauper on Hat Full of Stars, Tori Amos on Boys for Pele. Sarah's niche in this pantheon, as I array it, is Queen of Restraint. Kate is the Queen of Empathy, Jane of Detail (in her studio-mole mode), Cyndi of Individuality, Tori of Expression. Sarah's icon depicts her standing barefoot on a soft rug on a darkened stage, her arms wrapped around herself in a mixture of self-consciousness and auto-eroticism. (Actually, her concerts depict her this way, too.) There is no fear on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy so paralyzing that she won't hold it in her hands, tracing its curves, rubbing it along her face, tasting it to find out what it is, and there is no joy so electric that she won't hold it at arm's length, hefting it warily, knowing that there's something darker at its core. You will wait in vain for her songs to explode, fray, skid, spin, sprint or crash. Aching love, unflinching pragmatism and mortal despair are all rendered in equal, impeccable grace. All are steps ultimately towards redemption, each one taken with a care that doesn't depend on its immediate direction.
Maintaining this level of control is draining enough on record; how Sarah managed it over the course of a seemingly perpetual tour, which judging from the times it came through Boston seemed to grow more polished and flawless as it went, I can't imagine. "Full of Grace" had almost reached the breaking point, it seemed to me, a song so beautiful that it gave me chills even in my overheated apartment, but a song so laden with sorrow that every time it ended I was a little surprised Sarah and I had both lived through it. "Building a Mystery", Surfacing's advance single and opening track, perhaps sensing this tension, retreats from the precipice a bit, and presents a significantly more approachable facade. Ash Sood's drums are light, but steady, a calm kick/snare groove with none of Sarah's usual rhythmic obliqueness (or was that Pierre's?). Sarah and Michel Pepin's electric guitars are warm and thick, Marchand's backing vocals draw Sarah out of her self-containment a little, and the lyrics contribute a religious reference that people who heard "One of Us" should nod at, and even a "fuck" to be censored out of the radio version. An alien computer, sifting idly through this summer's radio transmissions, might well tag "Building a Mystery" and Meredith Brooks' "Bitch" with the same classification, essentially familiar music married to a commercially viable level of diffidence and sedition. We, however, have the technology, and more importantly, the context, with which to tell them apart. "Bitch", I think, whether you like the song or don't, is part of the tradition (ah, how constricted our notion of time has become that something that began two years ago can be called a "tradition") that also connects Alanis Morissette's "You Ought Know" and Tracy Bonham's "Mother Mother", personal catharsis as defiant aggression, calls to arms bearing standards for feelings older generations (meaning, again, those of just a few years ago) would have been reluctant to admit to, much less brandish. "Building a Mystery" has none of those features. It has "One of Us"' cadence, but the space in which it floats is quieter, the elements out of which it is built more brittle. The lyrics, half a portrait of the occult and half an attempt to understand its appeal, have more in common with Tori's or Lisa Germano's, and where Alanis, Tracy and Meredith's songs are reactions to convention, "Building a Mystery" is at least partially an examination of the impulse to react, and the consciousness of what is often represented as instinct. It is not an anthem, and not a lifestyle affirmation, and is thus probably less marketable (however catchy), but also much more satisfying.
Surfacing wastes no time pretending, even thinly, to be an amiable pop record. "I Love You", the second song, is atmospheric and eerily precise, Sarah's high, breathy melody mercilessly compressed and equalized to emphasize the clicks at the ends of words, not eliminate them. The text starts out on sentimental ground, "I have a smile stretched from ear to ear / To see you walking down the road", and as the song weaves an enticing island metaphor around the narrator's love, it seems like Sarah's between-albums marriage to Sood may have finally seeped into her lyrics. It's a setup, though, as the subject of the narrator's devotion ruins the scene by walking away, and the narrator is left lamenting her inability to produce the right words to express herself, even though, unusually for a song of this form, she's actually come up with some excellent ones. The gentle acoustic guitar solo, which would have been a theme for contended rapture if the song had stayed on course, is incongruous and disturbing by the time it arrives, as it sounds peaceful, but I can't figure out what peace in the narrator's mind it could be reflecting, unless it's complete resignation. "Sweet Surrender", in fact, pursues this notion further, wrapping a simmering mid-tempo strut, with pulsing guitar feedback (which, it might be useful to know if you're going to play this for the first time in the car, at first sounds like distant automobile horns) and acoustic guitar reverb that breathes in and out ominously, around the idea that words aren't the point, after all, and that "Sweet surrender is all I have to give". This would be more devout and platitudinal, however, if the chorus didn't end on the worried "I only hope that I don't disappoint you / When I'm down here on my knees", to me a justifiable fear. Surrender may be sweet, but who worth surrendering to would want or accept it? If surrender really is all you have to give, how are you different from any other desperate, lonely soul. Or maybe this is exactly her point, and my obtuse insistence on searching for someone with a complementary personality, rather than simply a complementary exasperation with the search or a corresponding awareness of mortality, explains why I'm still single.
"Adia", musically, with its piano, dry drums and plainly-delivered, slightly Joni-Mitchell-ish vocals, is a bit of a throwback to The Freedom Sessions, largely free from Sarah and Pierre's usual textural manipulations. The lyrics begin forebodingly: "Adia I do believe I've failed you, / Adia I know I've let you down / Don't you know I tried so hard to love you in my way? / It's easy letting go." If "I Love You", which began with a helpless grin, ended up close to suicidal, I'm scared to see what depths a song that begins this unraveled can plunge to. Fittingly, though, this one reverses the album's emotional curve, and although the song doesn't actually find a path all the way to reconciliation, its chorus, "We are born innocent: / Believe me, Adia, we are still innocent", does offer the consoling hope that a new beginning is always possible, no matter how much has happened. But "Do What You Have to Do", a somber piano ballad accompanied only by spare acoustic bass and a few unobtrusive cymbals (and reminding me, especially in the chorus, of Cyndi Lauper's "Sally's Pigeons"), is an odd choice to come next, "Aida"'s upswell of energy bleeding away through open hands that make no attempt to hold it. The storyline is grim, again, the narrator drawn to her love by the same unopposable fate that pulls him away. This time, however, she seems to derive some sustenance from the inevitability of the rejection, and in her admission, "I have the sense to recognize / That I don't know how to let you go", I hear a form of resignation that carries the seeds of self-possession, like her refusal to let go is a function of her desires, not something that he controls, even implicitly. And where the sweetness of surrender doesn't move me, something about the power of voluntary futility resonates.
The second half of the album, as if at a loss for where to go from there, or perhaps just hoping to approach the subject from a different direction, changes gears abruptly. On "Witness", which revolves around the strained and confused couplet, "Will we burn in heaven / Like we do down here?", the rest of the lyrics get mostly lost amidst Marchand's obsessively detailed production, every snare hit articulated intently, Sarah's harmony lines wailing against each other, the first half of the song sounding like a girl-group pout played at half speed, and the second half, Yves Desrosiers' squalling, abstract guitar solo lurching along unsteadily under most of it, sounding more like a demo for something King Crimson will fill in with nine other guitar lines later. "Angel", another piano dirge, is nearly soulful, Sarah tracing a number of melody lines that start off like her familiar tropes, but then veer away into figures with much older roots. The song reminds me more than once of Laura Nyro, and Sarah's absence from the recent Time and Love tribute seems glaring in retrospect, and I'm guessing it was a function of scheduling, not willingness. And the album's closest approach to a slinky groove, "Black & White", glides on a supple drum shuffle and underwater upright bass, Sarah's voice slipping into and out of its processing as if playing two parts without being totally sure how they're supposed to be different. The song's dance-unfriendly tempo notwithstanding, I have a feeling that the wordless semi-scat vocals and the strident guitar stabs (which must actually be either keyboards or bass, if the song credits are to be believed), if nothing else, will have a second life in a drum 'n' bass remake.
But just when the album seems to be untying itself from its pervasive grief, "Full of Grace" is back. It is different, here, it's true, than it was by itself. Disembodied, trailing after Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, it was a coda separated from its symphony, and thus deprived of most of its mitigating associative power. Instead of recapitulating Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, triumphantly, it almost seemed to have forgotten about it already, and thus it strained to fit its memories of a whole album into three minutes. Here, though, at the end of an album of much smaller songs, its orchestral swell and lush melancholy are arresting and unexpected. The song has not, itself, changed, but here, with "Sweet Surrender" and "Do What You Have to Do" still swirling in my mind, its impassioned "But oh, darkness, I feel like letting go" feels less like submission and more like casting off. "All of the strength, and all of the courage, / Come and lift me from this place", the chorus of Sarahs pleads, and this time it sounds less like she is summoning them to their final chore, and more like she's seen a way out, and is taking what she still values away with her. And as the slow concluding instrumental, "Last Dance", plays, I imagine that Sarah hasn't been swallowed, she's escaped. And I look around my apartment one last time, and prepare to follow her.