Album Assignments: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

Sometimes, when writing these album reviews, my first reaction has to do with the lyrics, or the performances, or the composition, or the production. And then there are those times when it’s just all about me. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy falls into the latter camp. I put this album on and I’m instantly transported to the mid-90’s, a time when one-word song titles ruled the world, and it still felt like a clever trick to leave a bunch of silence at the end of the last song on your CD, only to be followed by a “hidden track”. I’m just starting to work in CU’s Financial Aid office, after a couple of years in graduate school. It’s just a temporary thing, because I’m on my way to an academic career, just as soon as Laura finishes her Ph.D. Many of my friends are newly married, or on their way to it.

I listened to this album a lot during those years. I mean, a lot. But from 2018, time-traveling back to 1994 feels strange. So many things have changed since then. Some of those marriages have dissolved, some of those career paths have derailed, or I guess switched rails. There was so much coming that I didn’t foresee. I think that’s why Fumbling Towards Ecstasy felt really worn-out to me the first couple of times I listened to it for this assignment. Sometimes I feel a smooth, unbroken connection to the me I once was, but listening to Sarah McLachlan’s deep, cool emoting on this album, he felt quite distant indeed.

A few more listens, though, helped scrape off the overfamiliarity. I started to get past my own memories and just connect with the music on its own terms. It makes sense to me that this was McLachlan’s breakout album. It feels like the first mature expression of her artistic voice, not just her singing voice. She’d already established herself as an exceptional singer, and put that forward as her primary selling point — the debut single from her debut album was none-too-subtly called “Vox.” Her first couple of albums were very good, but still felt like an artist emerging from her influences, working to get past the Kate Bush-isms into her own unique idiom.

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy album cover

“Possession” is the song that stakes her claim on this new territory. A sterling member of the “Every Breath You Take” school of songs that sound sweet but are actually super-creepy, it puts McLachlan’s vocal gifts into a new context. This time, she’s not just here to earnestly express her struggles with lovers and/or parents, but rather to inhabit a pretty unsavory character, an obsessed fan projecting romantic attachment onto his favorite singer, with a sinister undertone of violence: “And I would be the one to hold you down / Kiss you so hard I’ll take your breath away.” It’d be a few more years before McLachlan would reach the US Top 40, but this song made a big impression in the “adult alternative” radio world, and consequently had a big impact on my area, as local station KBCO was a pioneer in that format, and I was still working as an intern there. Rightly so — it’s an excellent song, well-produced and performed with enough restraint that its eeriness can shine through.

Most of this album sticks pretty close to the “Possession” template musically. In fact, I’d say that the entire thing stays within a fairly limited range. If Fumbling Towards Ecstasy were a color palette, it would be whites, blue-whites, light blues, and dark blues. Even her imagery favors chilly controlling metaphors like “Ice” and “Ice Cream”. Piano, organ, subdued drums, and guitars that stay mostly in the background with the exception of occasional stabs outward, are the order of the day. The star of the show is McLachlan’s voice, but for many songs (case in point: “Wait”) she hangs out mostly in her lower register, or at least the Sarah in front does that. She tends to enrich her songs by layering herself singing a variety of parts, like a vocal harmony group made of all Sarah McLachlans. Then when the lead reaches a little higher, it feels more dramatic for how contained everything else has been.

Tempo-wise, also, most songs aren’t out to set your pulse racing, in fact so much so that some stretches of the album felt downright somnolent. I really appreciated “Circle” this time around for the way it kicks up the energy, especially on the chorus. “Ice Cream” is another welcome exception, with a little bit of swing to its drumbeat and a hi-hat that isn’t shoved to the back of the mix for once. And conversely, sleepwalkers like “Mary” and “Fear” started to feel longer and longer with every listen. McLachlan would learn this lesson well for later songs like “Building a Mystery” and “Sweet Surrender”, but on Fumbling she still stays mostly in a pretty small box.

Ultimately, it’s McLachlan’s songs that prove the most satisfying element of this album. Even though there’s a samey quality to the album as a whole, many songs have a refreshing directness that’s missing from her earlier work. “Hold On” is a plea to the fates that anybody who’s ever had a seriously ill loved one can instantly relate to. “Plenty” and “Circle” set out relationship dysfunction in a way that makes perfect sense, especially if you’ve been there. And “Good Enough” is still a very strong portrayal of somebody tired of hearing about a friend’s abusive love affair, knowing that they could fix it if only they were allowed to. At the time, it was even a little more intriguing for its hints of same-sex eroticism.

It’s those songs, and McLachlan’s endlessly compelling voice, that finally lift this album out of the mid-90’s amber in which it nearly gets preserved. Once I pry it loose from the context that sticks to it, I’m ready to love it again.

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