Surfacing (Sarah McLachlan, 1997)

This is the sound of the Nineties, in every way, shape and form. A unique, humanity-driven sound that is an art nearly lost in this plastic modern age. 

The visceral, timeless "Surfacing", a staple of Nineties Canadiana, was and will remain one of the most deep and precise compilations in our history. It is truly that good. McLachlan poured so much of her own essence and heartbeat into the making of this record that one can nearly follow the rhythm of each track to her breaths and shimmering voice. This album was built around her, but out of glass rather than plastic, allowing for a deep, personal journey mapped out in the ten tracks on the record.

Of course, no words will ever do these songs justice, particularly since most of the songs on "Surfacing" are extremely popular and continue to be added to McLachlan's setlist nearly twenty years later (and yes, it really has been that long already). Standouts obviously include the opener and smash hit "Building A Mystery". Right from the opening guitar twangs tinged with that oh-so-nostalgic Nineties echo, you're hooked. And there's no shame in not letting go of every second of this fantastic track as it echoes and hammers along in mystical fashion. Following along into the dream-like, hazy "I Love You", you can hear the remorse and tenderness in McLachlan's voice as she calls out to what could have been an ideal relationship that she never was brave enough to confront - a deep, raw crush that many of us have gone through in similar circumstances, surely.

Then, the sweeping synths of "I Love You" are overtaken by an echoing signal - an alarm or warning, even. This is the aptly titled "Sweet Surrender", one of McLachlan's most iconic tracks yet (resulting from the familiar alone - too many times have I noticed people stop when shopping to listen for a moment when that electronic siren blares through the speakers). The appropriateness of the track title is that one can't help but be sucked in to the chasm of electronic prowess, veiled by McLachlan and her backup singers belting out a shimmering, siren-like chorus. Following that is the spellbinding "Adia", a real tour-de-force. As soon as those first few deep piano keys plunk and lead into this heartfelt ballad, one can sense that they're about to enter another intricate, lush musical atmosphere. "Adia" and McLachlan do not disappoint. The soaring chorus and powerful backing arrangements feel like greeting an old friend at the door and inviting them in for coffee after years of lingering in the darkness alone.

A personal favourite, for several reasons, is the track that follows. "Do What You Have To Do" is, at the risk of sounding prejudiced, McLachlan's finest creation in her entire career. It saved my own life when I needed saving the most. For years in the Quebec countryside, living under the control of fear, oppression and an existence as a trophy to a malevolent pair of guardians, I found solace in this one song. Through the muffled, muted cold and past hungry wildlife, I walked, unsure of where the road went but half-hopeful it led to silence. Through my headphones, Sarah spoke to me. She kept me going with those same three minutes and forty-seven seconds. They're the best minutes of my life in regard to how much influence the music had on me. The muted, suffocated piano evoking it's player performing in an empty, echoing void mirrored my existence. It made me feel less alone and more capable of getting through the existence I was in. In a biased, inward-thinking society I continued to just survive. I made it out thanks to the empowering words in that track, and I'm forever grateful for how Sarah's music helped me through. Perhaps you will feel similarly, dear reader, once you take a listen to this transcendent piece of music. It may speak to you differently, or simply be too much to process. But the heartbeat is there, rest assured. That is the power of music, unquestionably.

Moving on, we enter the airy, shimmering atmosphere of "Witness", another deep cut that deserves recognition as a striking and personal foray through darkness and light. McLachlan, like on the rest of the record, is at the top of her game here. Her methods in lyric delivery are staggering - something that is specially confined to the albums "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy", "Afterglow" and of course, "Surfacing". There's something indescribable about this period of her career - an influence that gave the music extra soul and rawness in such a beautiful form. Following that, McLachlan unloads the big gun. You all know.


Fitting, that her most famous song is the most deeply rooted, emotionally charged and brutally open. McLachlan is carving out her chest here, baring all without shame. And it's splendid. I commend her for such presence and true, unrelenting tenderness. Few artists reach such a point in their entire careers, let alone within the span of a few minutes on a single track. This is why McLachlan is deserving of such praise - the music she makes is real. This is a lost art, and it must be resurrected in a more widespread manner to maintain our humanity. The plastic, sugary corporate pop music of the modern day is utterly cringeworthy and depressing - ironically, more so than tearful ballads such as "Angel" and "Do What You Have To Do". And that's saying something. Think about it for a moment - let this observation rattle your mind.

One more standout is the groovy yet harmoniously pleasing "Black And White" - another personal favourite. It churns and flows along, weaving in and out of ethereal waves and jazzy piano mingled with sharp drum arrangements. The lyrics "Don't disappoint them" are an underlying theme as McLachlan expresses a need for understanding, all whilst drowning in electronic synths and strings and occasionally surfacing to cry out. Following that, all settles down for the angelic "Full Of Grace". This one is a jewel of the album, really. It increasingly bursts with energy and life as it goes on, with jungle drums and a choir of backing vocals serenading amidst McLachlan's empowering lyrics. 

Closing the album, one last track of note is the otherworldly yet homey "Last Dance". Acting as a step through time and into an uncertain future, this plonking old-timey piano ballad serves as the perfect conclusion of a deeply personal musical journey. It's short, honey-sweet and every bit as evocative as the rest of "Surfacing". It even ties into the album title in terms of atmosphere - one can envision rising to meet the challenges of life, of floating to the surface and light after so very long cast adrift in the depths of darkness. It's melancholic yet inspiring at the same time - a staple of McLachlan's music in this era, particularly. 

Perhaps you've noticed that every track on "Surfacing" is mentioned here as a standout. That was no mistake. This album is fully appreciated when heard in its entirety. It can heal, bring tears, inspire and empower all in one cycle. It's a journey worth embarking on. The age of that signature Nineties Canadiana sound found in works of the era by artists such as Sarah McLachlan, Amanda Marshall and others is long gone, but that hasn't stopped the music from meeting the challenges of time and winning without a scratch. In conclusion, "Surfacing" might be the album that's been missing; the one little musical void that you've been yearning to fill, so to speak. 

Bring an old friend into your home that you didn't know you had. "Surfacing" is an album for humanity.