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Sarah McLachlan: Afterglow
Since Lilith Fair, Sarah McLachlan is a lifestyle brand. In her organizational role she now symbolizes women's right to their own expressive context, which by virtue of being inevitably both empowering and isolationist is naturally contentious in various ways. Lilith Fair was either inspiringly diverse and open or stultifyingly homogenous and monochromatic, depending on your perspective (or, perhaps more accurately, on your distance), and maybe realistically both, and Sarah further complicated her public identity by marrying her drummer and disappearing from music to have a child, which are perfect reasonable things for an individual to do but aren't necessarily the elements of radical gender activism.
But then Lilith Fair wasn't intended to be May '68 in France. It was a gathering, not a rebellion. And in her role as an artist, more importantly, Sarah is a meticulous and focused style-purist, and her music is thus integral to both Lilith Fair's coherence and its mildness. Her discipline is the evocation of fluttery passions haunting the shadows of necks and shoulders, and rustling folds of velvet and lace. This much restraint and earnestness, these days, is either oblivious or brave, and Sarah is hardly oblivious. Sniping at it is the simplest of critical sports. Her songs are of a single type, so you can write off any new ones as redundant. She's a lyricist but not much of a poet on paper, so you can take her emotions apart and claim there's nothing inside them. Her songs don't rock. She sometimes closes her eyes when she sings.
And she is incredibly good at what she does. Afterglow is exactly the same in most taxonomic aspects as Surfacing, her last studio album six years ago, but the songs are new, and that's enough if it's enough. Pierre Marchand again produces; Pierre and Sarah play keyboards and guitars; Ashwin drums and programs; Sean Ashby, Michael Chaves, Bill Dillon and Michel Pepin supply interchangeably discreet guitar; Tony Levin adds some bass and Jorane plays cello and sings a little backup. The songs are listlessly boring or they're mesmerizing beautiful.
But maybe it's another measure of which to see whether they reward attention. For me, at least, this album repays exactly and only what I invest in it. If I skim through it as background, it is the thinnest of featureless textures. But the closer I listen, the more I hear, which maybe ought to be tautological but is untrue of many, many things. Strings swoop in and out of the yearning "Fallen". Guitars purr warmly through the undulating "World on Fire", which invokes distant echoes of "Into the Fire" from the old days, and reminds me that Sarah's studio songs used to be only half of themselves until there were corresponding live versions to reveal their other sides. "Stupid"'s verses shuffle and softly beep, but the choruses buzz and howl with hints of Kate and the Trio Bulgarka. "Drifting" is rhythmically self-descriptive, but layered deep with textural noise. "Train Wreck" is the closest thing here to a rock song, guitars muttering restlessly until the chorus rings. "Push" lists toward lullaby, but ends up throwing in a little "Baker Street"-esque flourish. "Answer" is a tolling piano dirge, but then Jim Creeggan's gruff acoustic bass and Sarah's ethereal falsetto spin off into their own supple opposition. "Time" is raw material for club remixing, but "Perfect Girl" is almost liturgical. And "Dirty Little Secret" is perilously close to literal reprise, but in an art like this, ending a chapter by summarizing the story so far makes perfect sense. Nobody's going to get tricked into buying a Sarah McLachlan album. And if you are susceptible to this quiet magic, then it doesn't matter how many people aren't. You have your shelter from them.
Emmylou Harris: Stumble Into Grace
But if you want to sustain your belief in Sarah McLachlan and Pierre Marchand's magic, you may want to stay away from Emmylou Harris. Her hair has taken on a worrying non-metaphoric bluish tinge in the cover photo, and arguably she too has been making the same sort of album for a few years now, but the difference between Afterglow and Stumble Into Grace is the difference between the nicest furniture store at the mall and a simple kitchen table made by an artisan raised along the curves of the grains of her birthplace's trees. Sarah's elegance is molded in plastic and lit by studio gauges. Emmylou and Malcolm Burn's elegance carries the solidity of earth and the gravity of generations. Emmylou's is rooted, and I don't think you have to know very much history to recognize the places where its reverberations surface in the present.
Emmylou has, obviously, a number of advantages that Sarah does not. Sarah is a fine singer, but Emmylou is one of the definitive voices of the modern era. Pierre Marchand is clever, but Malcolm Burn is Daniel Lanois' protégé. Emmylou has a PowerBook full of unlisted IM handles: Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Jill Cunniff, Paul Kennerley, Burn and Lanois lend co-writing help; Brady Blade, Buddy and Julie Miller, Jane Siberry, Daryl Johnson, Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Salem, Gillian Welch, Colin Linden, Burn, Lanois and the McGarrigles all come by to play or sing. And Emmylou has not only a first-hand knowledge of thirty years of music history but a permanently assured place in it.
But then again, tastes are not functions of credentials. Sarah and Pierre's synthetic reveries are their own form, not attempts to mass-produce ersatz handcrafts. In Emmylou's songs atmospheric grace periodically gives way to folk-country twang and organic humility, and that may not be what you want. Where Sarah sighs, Emmylou creaks, and maybe you want to feel surrounded by vigilant ghosts instead of wry ones. Sarah's writing is vague in its yearning, but Emmylou's is steeped in scriptural grammar, and maybe you'd rather an abstractness into which you can breathe your own references. Some nights you don't want a sermon, you want to watch television. Sometimes you want a table that doesn't look like a tree.
Meat Loaf: Couldn't Have Said It Better
As authors of epically inviolable self-identity, though, Sarah and Emmylou are tentative novices compared to the leviathan presence of Meat Loaf. Marvin Aday is a singular force. I don't know of another singer alive who can, without writing or playing a single note or word of his own music, impose such an unmistakable nature onto it. Meat Loaf doesn't have to commission his material, he simply intimidates the structure of reality into generating it for him spontaneously and exclusively. Either that or there's a little style-guide somewhere that explains every secret of rock and roll in exhaustive detail on the way to eliminating each possible nuance that doesn't fit Meat Loaf's absurd comfort-food embrace, and a hex on the cover that prevents the reader from using this knowledge in any other cause. Otherwise I can't explain how Meat Loaf can change writers without changing his music in the least, nor how it is that nobody else ever sounds remotely like this. You could identify these songs from single lines: "And you said nothing at all; / Well I couldn't have said it better myself", and how did James Michael know that only Meat Loaf would start the song (and the album!) with "And"? "I will take your body language and hold it against you tonight", and only Meat Loaf can make language taste like sweat. "So I asked myself 'Do I love you so much / That I'm willing to let you go?' / At the tip of my tongue the answer was 'yes', / But at the back of my mind I'm wondering... // Did I say that?", and who else would have the gall to, again, leave the build up in the verse when the punch line is in the chorus? "I want to take you in the back seat now / And slowly drive you home", and I know I'm not going to look in the window to find out how many levels of entendre that is. Who else could stomp past the four lines of betrayal in "Love You Out Loud" so blithely that petulant unfaithfulness becomes grand devotion denied? Who else could carry off a song called "Man of Steel" that morphs its strength from "I remember how it used to be, / Making love to you all night long" to "But as strong as I am, / Why can't I break your heart?" Perhaps when all you have is strength, you make weakness out of confusion. Meat Loaf stands back and lets a backing choir whisper "Go boy, can you hear them?" before storming back into "Testify" like all the horsemen of the apocalypse crammed into the cab of one gigantic Tonka truck. Nobody else on earth would stop a song in the middle to let Giselda Vatchy read a rambling biography of the singer that nearly credits him with the defense of the Alamo. "He grew into a big man, with a big voice. And he sings big songs and has big hits. You can try to tear him down!" Who would bother or dare? Who else could make a Dianne Warren song sound small? And who, for the love of the fabric of reality, could make Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" sound like a Roxette ballad in which the monster from No Such Thing has eaten Marie?
Per Gessle: Mazarin
Last I checked, the monster didn't get Marie, and a brain tumor didn't, either, but the tumor did take her out of commission for a while, and whatever the actual sequence of events, Per's solo album is now doomed to seem to me like what he did while Marie was recovering. This is one dopey thought, but now I doubt I'll ever shake it. The deliberately superficial lilt of these frilly pop songs makes sense as the sort of borderline-patronizing convalescent cheer that seeing adults reduced to dependents often inspires, and singing them in Swedish, despite Marie's fluent English, would also be a reversion to something more basic for her.
Or maybe I'm willing to feel like I'm intruding because even if this isn't Mazarin's text, Gessle is still reconnecting to something that I don't share. Stripped to strummy acoustic-guitar cores, these thin songs fall out of the bottom of the underlying simplicity of his songwriting, for me, like a great chef working without his few essential spices or his favorite spatula. I didn't live through the Sixties, and I didn't grow up on anything this sunny. I like these songs best when they break out of their jello molds and act more like people than peace-sign bobblehead dolls, when they stop worrying about agitating the bedridden. "Födelsedag" gnashes and bounds and struts, an airy choir ahhing accompaniment. "Sakta Mina Steg" hangs in helium falsetto. "Spegelboll" sounds like Blondie's "Atomic" rewritten as a robot-western theme. "För Bra För Att Vara Sant" warms to its chiming choruses. "Här Kommer Alla Känslorna (På En Och Samma Gång)" twitters and whistles like music from a children's show I might actually have liked. "Jag Tror Du Bär På En Stor Hemlighet" sounds like an acoustic demo for a Roxette song. But too often, on the rest of this album, Per has gone back to a base he and I don't share.
Sloan: Action Pact
There's no real reason to expect that Per Gessle and I would share a base, but there's not much reason to expect that I'd share one with some scruffy guys from Halifax, either, yet Action Pact, the new Sloan album, sounds to me much more like Per's reduction in my idioms. Simplicity, here, is big electric guitars, rumbling bass, square drums and layers of open-hearted harmony. At times this album sounds like an ingenious hybrid of AC/DC and Boston, simultaneously swaggering and preening, and at others I wonder if this isn't what it would have sounded like if the Posies had signed up to back Tom Petty instead of Alex Chilton. But "False Alarm" could be Velvet Crush playing a Pillows song, "Hollow Head" is a giddy neo-Cheap Trick stomp, and "Fade Away" inches towards baroque. And my favorite moment, the soaring "I Was Wrong", is the sound the heart hears when it believes its own apology. "Burn down the past", Sloan yelps. "If I could have one more chance to hold you", Meat Loaf pleads in his version of this same theme. We're not really burning the past, of course, we're just walking away from it, but sometimes to walk away we have to believe that everything behind us is in ruins. Sometimes, to take another chance when a thousand are offered, we need to believe that there's only one.
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