Music Review: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (Sarah McLachlan, 1993)

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There are few albums that come around and make such a lasting impression as Sarah McLachlan’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” – released back in 1993. Much like her two next albums, it encapsulated the flavour of the times in a raw, earthy way. This is where McLachlan is at her finest, as “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” shimmers with a degree of introspectiveness that few recordings can achieve.

Opener “Possession” is a staple of McLachlan’s repertoire even today, still producing emotional sways and closed-eye reflections amongst audience members lucky enough to see her perform it. The track itself has that timeless feel of the Nineties, complete with muffled guitar thrusts, echoed harmonies and deep, evocative lyrics. The alternative version hidden at the end of the album is even more incredible, drowning out the noise only to be replaced with McLachlan’s iconic heart-grabbing piano strings and her voice. It’s magical in every way.

Credit: Law4Illusion (YouTube)

Another standout - and my personal favourite - is the bombastic “Plenty”, which has some of the best lyrics on any of McLachlan's albums. From the opening line, “I looked into your eyes, they told me plenty” onwards, this track is the rawest we hear one of Canada’s most beloved artists, and dear me, is it ever glorious. Even the way “Plenty” opens, slowly emerging from the shadows with pounding drums and a frigid soundscape echoes the story on offer of accepting a loved one’s straying. To me, it’s quite literally a perfect track in terms of composition and delivery. It has such a beautiful and ethereal sound to it that's modern yet timeless, a staple of her albums of the Nineties. 

“Good Enough” is heartbreaking beyond compare, but oh-so-relatable to the point that it can’t be ignored. With melodies and harmonies that pull your heart in and wrap it in solace, it’s another must-listen, especially when backed up by the brilliant piano echoing in the background. Other standouts on “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” include the emotional ballad “Elsewhere”, the haunting and powerful “Hold On”, the strangely succulent and unexpected “Ice Cream” (another iconic track), and the vocally transcendent title track itself.

However, one last particular track stands out as one of the finest on the album, delivered in such a visceral, imposing manner that it always gets the audience’s attention: “Fear.”

Not officially released as a single, this is a tragically-short but endearingly visceral track. It's another one of those McLachlan masterpieces that beautifully preserve the sound and feel of the Nineties. With thundering drums, an eerie opening that itself has become iconic, and the soaring vocals of McLachlan amidst a cascade of icy beats and panicked guitar strings, it’s really something else. “Fear” is also one of the best tracks you can hear live when McLachlan tours, as her modern-day voice is far stronger and even more powerful. When you hear her let out that line, “But I fear”, you will be guaranteed of goosebumps and a grab at the heart. That’s the power of truly exceptional-quality music, right there. You don't get the same sensation from modern bubblegum-autotune pop with seventeen writers fighting for scraps of lyric fragments to make a few bucks.

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“Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” is a hallmark release by an iconic artist, but it’s so much more than that. You can feel the emotions in the string arrangements, the heartbeats in every drum and the introspectiveness in every lyrical line. In my opinion, today’s artists would benefit from revisiting this precise sound that it seems only the Nineties was capable of producing. It’s strange to think that a decade – a period of time – can be so unique and so very special as an influence to a musical soundscape, but this is what McLachlan’s albums of this period were able to evoke. There’s a reason many people say that her Nineties releases were the pinnacle – the very best: It’s because, in so many ways, they are. They can never be equalled due to their very unique sound and nature.