Popular music these days is rarely compelling or even interesting. Most of what passes for music consists of retreads of old songs or scandalously dressed non-entities strutting their stuff for the paparazzi. Amid the dearth of singing talent arises once or twice in a decade the understated loveliness of Sarah McLachlan, whose grace and distinctive contralto welcome the listener like an old friend.
Whereas other singers make heartbreak feel like a dagger to the soul, Miss McLachlan takes the painful end to her marriage and adds hope for a happier future into the mix. The result is her new release Laws of Illusion. The album reminds the listener of her earlier songs whilst inviting us to experience a woman approaching middle age with the passion of her 25-year-old self.
Miss McLachlan's breakthrough album was Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, released in the early 1990s. On it she sang of fan obsession and the importance of holding onto hope even in the face of death. Critics correctly pointed out at the time that her singing was very good, but the lyrics had the ring of a teenage girl's scribbled poetry.
Now in her early 40s, McLachlan has acquired the subtlety of experience to avoid complex metaphor and state things simply. In the song 'Forgiveness', she sings 'Cause you don't know much about heaven, boy, if you have to hurt to feel'. No-one will give McLachlan writing awards, but she possesses a fine sense of phrasing that suits her understated singing style perfectly.
Critics of her new work complain that her pain strikes the listener as almost benign. Shouldn't she be spitting angry about the break-up of her 11-year marriage? Shouldn't she lash out at the man who disappointed her? Well, no. The point of Laws of Illusion is coming to terms with the heartache and then moving forward towards a new life with the possibility of loving still intact. McLachlan expresses this possibility in two songs on the album: 'Loving You Is Easy' and 'Love Come'. The former is bouncy and upbeat whereas the latter is more taciturn and cautious, almost a lament.
In a career now spanning two decades, Sarah McLachlan can still tease the listener into wanting more. She smartly avoids 75-minute albums crammed with content. Instead, she writes well crafted medium length songs. Her albums rarely extend beyond the 45-minute mark. Most of her songs are simply arranged - with piano, drums and guitar accompaniment and no fancy effects or overdubs. The result frees the listener to experience her pure and sweet voice unadorned by technology.
Laws of Illusion is a fine return to form for a singer who hasn't released a full length album of original songs in seven years. Welcome back, Sarah. Loving you is easy.