7 Beguiling Sarah McLachlan Deep Cuts from Her First Decade of Albums

Grammy and Juno Award-winning singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan was one of the most original and captivating artists to emerge during the 1990s. Combining elements of folk, rock, pop, and electronic music in varying degrees, the Canadian artist created a unique sound that haunted and captivated fans in equal measure. Her breakthrough album, the triple-Platinum Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, took her career to another level. Then Surfacing became a monster hit and she started the Lilith Fair festival geared towards female artists that was immensely successful during the three years it toured in the late 1990s.

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As McLachlan prepares to go on the road to celebrate 30 years of Falling Towards Ecstasy, let’s take a look at some deep cuts from the first decade of her career that span a wide range of styles and influences with her very distinct sonic stamp.

“Vox,” from Vox (1989)

Although the title track from her Gold-certified debut is the most streamed song from that release, it still feels like a deep cut as this particular collection hasn’t received the same attention as subsequent albums. The song opens up with McLachlan’s bewitching singing over delicately dancing acoustic guitar and piano, and when the drums and keyboards kick in the song becomes more upbeat and bright. Yet underneath it all, the words express emotional turmoil about either an unrequited love or an unstable relationship, depending on how one wants to view it. It’s definitely an unusual track in the McLachlan oeuvre and one that hasn’t been performed a lot live, although it did make the extended Mirrorball concert album.

“Sad Clown,” from Vox (1989)

One of the best songs on Sarah McLachlan’s debut album, “Sad Clown” is an unusual entry in her catalog that has a touch of Goth to it. This is a really impressionistic piece that places synth strings over bursts of hand percussion and heavy tom work that builds as the song progresses. Layered on top of all of this during the choruses is a choir of McLachlan’s beautiful singing. This is the kind of sonic tapestry that defined her earlier career and quickly made her stand out from her contemporaries. Solace was the first album where she began her long-running association with gifted producer Pierre Marchand.

“Black,” from Solace (1991)

Another standout track in McLachlan’s catalog, the subdued, moody “Black” was reportedly inspired by the Exxon Valdez disaster. She seems to be channeling the idea of what someone high up in corridors of power might have been thinking after such a disaster, hence the chorus asking: If I cried me a river of all my confessions / Would I drown in my shallow regret? It’s a beautifully orchestrated piece full of strings, mandolin, a bassoon-like instrument, and some dissonant harmonica. It’s like McLachlan crossed with Tom Waits, and that doesn’t seem surprising given she later covered the Waits song “Ol’ 55.”

“Back Door Man,” from Solace (1991)

On the flip side of “Black,” this song feels like an anthem for the oppressed and helpless. It doesn’t specify what the actual emergency or crisis is, but McLachlan’s delivery creates a sense of urgency and the fear and uncertainty that some people feel when they lose control of their lives due to outside forces. The way the delicate verses brush up against intense choruses makes for a compelling composition, and the two verses are slightly different in feeling. Another artist would have just alternated them, but McLachlan lets her emotion and the instrumentation build more with the second verse and makes the song easily warrant repeat listens.

“Circle,” from Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)

It’s hard to find a song on this triple-Platinum album that isn’t that well-known, but this one qualifies and has barely, if ever, been performed live. The slowly churning “Circle” is one of those tracks that defined the best of McLachlan’s ‘90s work. It had the dulcet vocals and sounds that were slightly more on the pop side and the gritty guitars and dissonance that brought in a rock feel. The two mesh symbiotically in this brooding track in which the singer pleads with herself to find a way to resolve a circular, smothering relationship that is going nowhere. Everyone has felt that at some point—being afraid to let go of the past but also wary of what the future might bring—yet at a certain point a decision has to be made and people must move on.

“Blue,” Fumbling Towards Ecstasy B-side (1993)

Issued as a bonus track on her third album’s Japanese and UK releases, McLachlan’s angelic, airy cover of Joni Mitchell’s ballad “Blue” took the song into another dimension with the atmospheric approach of her earlier music. As McLachlan sings, washes of ambient guitar, violin, and organ surface and recede. She also breaks into gorgeous vocal sections harmonizing with herself. If you ever wanted to hear what a glorious choir of McLachlan would sound like, this is a prime example. She got to perform the song for Mitchell last year, although this time it was more intimate, just voice and piano like the original.

“Black & White,” from Surfacing (1997)

Here’s another prime example of McLachlan’s different influences intersecting. While she has been known for beautiful, high operatic vocals, her subdued singing is equally mesmerizing. This is an ethereal track where vocals and keyboards glide over a gently insistent groove—the kind of syncopated drum pattern that was popular in a number of ‘90s rock songs but performed more fluidly here. Talented drummer (and McLachlan’s ex-husband) Ashwin Sood played on her albums between 1991 and 2006, and was a valuable asset to her both on album and in concert. The elegance of the song is occasionally punctuated by stabs of guitar noise, and she also delivers an unexpected bit of jazz scatting in the middle section. The track’s beauty is contrasted by somber lyrical musings: Everybody loves you when you’re easy / Everybody hates when you’re a bore / Everyone is waiting for your entrance / So don’t disappoint them.

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