This is one of those albums for which I’ve started avoiding looking at the year it was released, because it makes me feel old. (It turns 22 this year. Probably gets played on those oldies stations that I also avoid listening to because a friend told me a few years ago that Blind Melon’s “No Rain” is officially an oldie now and how can that be &*%^$ possible?)
I discovered the single “Possession” on a flight from Atlanta to Miami when I was 15: It was on a list of maybe eight tracks the airline had compiled of rock and pop music on the in-flight “radio” station. I listened to that channel for the entire flight, sitting through the other entirely forgettable songs just to hear “Possession” maybe three times. I got the album as soon as it came out, and I have never stopped listening.
I still listen to a lot of the music I loved when I was a teenager, but most of it is still dear to me out of a sense of nostalgia: I am not the person I was when I fell in love with those songs, and in a lot of cases my taste has changed to the extent that some of it now sounds shallow and hackneyed–the lyrics capture a glimmer of how I felt at the time, but the songs aren’t strikingly inventive in any way. Fumbling towards Ecstasy is one of the exceptions. Every song on it is still as compelling to me as they were the day I brought the album home, particularly “Possession,” “Ice,” and the titular “Fumbling toward Ecstasy.”
While there’s plenty to be said about originality and inventiveness in popular music, a large part of what I’ve always valued in rock and other short-form songs is the use of lyrics–without the imagery and expression, the greater part of the artistry in rock stems from using existing melodies and rhythms in new ways. She captures something of Romanticism in its original literary sense, and a lot of the imagery she uses in her songs subverts and questions the representations of women ingrained in our culture, particularly those of Christian iconography. Most of the songs on her first four albums aren’t about love at all, and those that are are not about winning the guy but about struggling to keep one’s sense of personal identity from being subsumed by obsession, about questioning whether love and passion are the same thing, about whether overwhelming physical passion is ever a truly healthy thing.
A lot of television and film reviews these days discuss the idea of the male gaze, and how more and more directors are creating love scenes and other interactions on screen to present such exchanges from the woman’s perspective, and to appeal to the tastes of female viewers. This is something that McLachlan does in her music that few other musicians were doing at the time–she uses the female perspective in ways that weren’t often heard on popular radio stations back in 1994. Most pop love songs sung from the woman’s perspective even now are limited to celebrating a particular ideal man, questioning what a man wants from a woman, or occasionally rejecting that in favour of another man (or preferring being alone). Before Sarah McLachlan and her support of women artists via the Lilith Fair, there wasn’t a lot of pop music making it onto the charts that asked not just was this man or that man worth it, would he treat you well, but what do you really want in a lover and a partner? (Regardless of that partner’s gender.) She also cast the woman in a relationship in the role of the protector and the provider–and, in “Possession”, as the stalker. (Everyone always brings up “Every Breath You Take” as the quintessential example of a really creepy song being misunderstood as a glorious love song, but when you look at the lyrics of “Possession”, which were in fact inspired by things that two stalkers wrote to McLachlan in the early years of her career. It isn’t as airily romantic as her voice implies; the words are more evocative of paranoid delusion than they are of sane, if melodramatic, love.)
She wasn’t alone–there was Aimee Mann, the Indigo Girls, P. J. Harvey, Melissa Etheridge, Salt n’ Pepa, and a few others active at the same time–but she was a rarity, and she has used her fame to promote other women in music and music education in general. This album is still the best of McLachlan’s work and, together with its bookends Solace and Surfacing, still sounds vital and a little different from anything else around.