What I am about to say will hurt me much more than it will hurt Sarah McLachlan, but here goes: Sarah’s new album is full of some of the most uninspired lyrics since Britney found “Bombastic Love,” and the business-as-usual production from longtime collaborator Pierre Marchand makes for one damn boring album.
This is a painful-but-true confession from a girl whose only goal in life used to be dropping out of college to tour with Sarah and braid her hair. Afterglow, her first studio album in five years, offers nothing new, and very little that’s interesting, from an artist who used to make it okay to like chick music. She still sounds gorgeous (and looks amazing in the liner insert pictures), and the half-a-dozen-or-so tortured love songs use the requisite poetic words, like “finery.” Still, there’s not a single thing here that would make a listener choose Afterglow over one of her previous albums.
Take the first single, for instance. “Fallen” is a lovely lament of I-should-have-known-better heartbreak. Sarah’s voice warbles as we’ve heard it do a hundred times before, and there’s not a female artist alive today who sounds like her. There’s some naked guitar and bells, as we’ve come to expect since “Building A Mystery.” And that’s the problem. There’s nothing here that we don’t expect. Sarah hasn’t taken any chances. The single is pretty, but safe.
The rest of the album is the same. Gone is the mind-boggling upper register of Solace and Fumbling Toward Ecstasy. The first time I heard her perform “Ice” live, I was amazed that her voice really was that flexible. Perhaps that agility has diminished with age, because it is all-but-missing on Afterglow. I could be imagining things, but every time a vocal ends on one song and begins on another, I swear she’s singing the same note. Is this a concept album?
A few of the songs do strain to break free from the dullness of the majority. “Train Wreck” is a fine song, pushing past the folk-popiness of the rest of the album. It wants to be rock, though, and falls short – and it has a chorus that goes on and on. “Answer” is a lullaby that gets dragged down by its own pomposity. “Time” and “Perfect Girl” are good enough, but even these promising tunes feel detached and inaccessible. I don’t believe what she’s trying to tell me, and that’s a huge problem.
Some critics have said that fans should be “comforted” by the fact that Sarah hasn’t changed the formula from 1997’s Surfacing. Aren’t they, instead, concerned that this artist who was once such a passionate songwriter and performer has managed to make an album that doesn’t make you feel anything? This is background music; something to put on during a party, when you don’t want your guests thinking too hard about what they’re hearing. It’s beautiful, but empty.