The late 1990s were very good for female singer-songwriters. There was very much a sound of the time: the light, breezy, alternative pop mixed with light folk, type of sound. It was music associated with Lilith Fair and that most people nowadays associate with middle aged women. It’s the music of Suzanne Vega, Jewel, and Paula Cole. And at the top of that sound, leading the charge, was Sarah McLachlan.
Surfacing, released on July 15, 1997, is very much an album of the time. It’s undeniably dated. Surfacing sounds like the late 1990s wrapped up in an album, it sounds like butterfly clips and chunky sandals. It sounds like it should be played at an emotional moment at the end of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode–and hilariously enough, “Full of Grace,” was played at an emotional moment at the end of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. But there’s nothing wrong with dated: after all, plenty of iconic music albums throughout the canon are dated as hell. Most importantly, Surfacing holds up spectacularly well.
Surfacing is a triumph of songwriting talent. McLachlan tailors each song to fit perfectly in her alto range. Her voice is the star of the show: songs can go from an emotional belt to McLachlan causally singing a phrase in a throw-away cadence, imparting a new sadness to a simple set of words. Her vocal control is astonishing: the way McLachlan uses dynamics adds an extra layer of tenseness and drama to the song. But while her voice commands attention, the rest of the song’s framework pulls it’s weight as well. The harmonies slot wonderfully together and the instrumentation always manages to lift the song to new heights. Whether a simple piano part or beautiful languid strings, McLachlan knows what to use and when to use it.
There’s plenty of songs on here that people have heard before, but forgotten about, slipping away into the brain’s collective unconscious of ‘oh hey, I know that song.’ For me, it was “Sweet Surrender,” a surprisingly high energy track where McLachlan’s lethargic, drawn-out style of singing is oddly yet amazingly contrasted with guitars and a high-energy drum machine.
But perhaps the most lasting contribution to music (and pop culture as a whole) is “Angel.” Though the lyrics are about the heroin overdose death of Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, the song has taken on new life due to it’s use in ASPCA commercials, as McLachlan’s voice accompanies pictures of sad animals and McLachlan herself, a spokesperson for the ASPCA, tells you how for just dollars a day, you can make a difference in these animals’ lives. The song’s become such a staple of popular culture, used in viral videos and animal shelter ads alike.
And yet, when you remove the emotional context of small animals and sad puppies, “Angel” stands up remarkably well on it’s own. The spare arrangement perfectly compliments the heartbreaking lyrics and beautifully simple melody. Because that’s what the chorus is: simple. Anyone can (and probably has) sung the chorus, whether heartfelt at a talent show or jokingly among friends. With “Angel,” McLachlan gives a perfectly simple song, letting her vocal talent and emotion shine through, pulling your heartstrings with or without pictures of sad animals.
Surfacing is a great album and it should come to no surprise that it’s one of McLachlan’s most popular. With “Angel,” she’s written an immensely powerful song, driving and heartbreaking in its simplicity. The rest of the album is no slouch either, triumphs of songwriting mixed with a mastery of the late 1990s sound which still holds up amazingly well in this day and age. Give it a re-listen. I guarantee you there’s at least one song on there that makes you smile that you’ve definitely forgotten about.