Discovered in her teens fronting a new wave band in Halifax, Sarah McLachlan (who subsequently relocated to Vancouver, on Canada’s other coast) quickly evolved into one of the most captivating voices in pop music, yet another vital figure in Canada’s rich legacy of innovative singer/songwriters. Equally adept on piano and guitar (credit years of classical training on both), McLachlan’s primary instrument on Touch is her sweet, reedy voice, reminiscent of Sinéad O’Connor but unfamiliar with stridency. Although she was only 20 at the time, the album shows her to be a songwriter of promising lyrical insight. Only the haunting “Ben’s Song” and the single “Vox” (included on CD in original and extended remix form) boast the compelling hooks that distinguish her subsequent work, but Touch is an impressive debut.
The album made McLachlan a star in Canada; not surprisingly, the transitional Solace reflects a mood of lost innocence. “Black,” “Mercy” and “Lost” are as melancholy as their titles suggest, and only a lighthearted cover of Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” injects any cheerfulness. Atmospherically framed by producer Pierre Marchand (who would repeat the role on her next two studio albums), Solace is graced with thoughtful arrangements, sensitive playing and, most important, melodies that equal McLachlan’s sharpening skills as a lyricist. The first four cuts — “Drawn to the Rhythm,” “Into the Fire,” “The Path of Thorns (Terms)” and “I Will Not Forget You” — are outstanding. (The limited-edition seven-song Live, containing concert versions of material from Solace and Touch as well as “Back Door Man,” was released only in Canada.)
Even the cover of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy — a photo of the artist gazing happily into the camera, where previously she had averted her eyes — signals McLachlan’s growing confidence and aesthetic maturation. After touring for over a year, McLachlan had visited Cambodia and Thailand to narrate a video documentary. Exploring the emotions generated by those experiences, the twelve songs of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy are less self-indulgent, boasting a new sense of objectivity that increases the emotional impact. “All the fear has left me now/I’m not afraid anymore” she announces on the title track. “Hold On” confronts mortality, while “Ice” meditates on addiction. The jazzy “Ice Cream” balances the pervasive darkness with light.
In addition to an extensive CD-ROM scrapbook track, The Freedom Sessions presents stripped-down versions — in arrangements ranging from solo piano and voice to full semi-acoustic band workouts to feedback-laced electric rock duo — of seven Fumbling Towards Ecstasy songs, including “Hold On,” “Elsewhere,” “Plenty” and “Good Enough.” The record ends with a loose, boozy band cover of Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55,” followed by an unlisted and extraordinary second rendition (on acoustic guitar, bass and brushed drums) of “Hold On” that turns the searing ballad into a soft, soulful moan. Aside from showcasing her increasing vocal dexterity (particularly on a bluesy version of “Ice Cream”), the minimalist approaches of The Freedom Sessions underscore McLachlan’s fundamental talent as a songwriter.