How good are Sarah McLachlan's songs?
Vancouver Sun, November 5, 1998
by Pete McMartin
In person, she is oval-faced, porcelain-skinned, bedimpled. Her nose turns up pertly at its tip. Her hair is cut short and frosted, and was -- during her appearance in court Wednesday -- pinned back at the temple with a plain, humble bobby pin.
In repose, her face is pretty and pleasant, and emanates a kind of art-school sensitivity. Her smile is megawatt. Her greatest physical assets are, of course, her eyes, which are languid, unnaturally luminous and fringed with eyelashes as large as lawn rakes. Interviewers invariably describe her as "doe-eyed," yet that would better describe the effect they have on anyone she turns them on. Men, particularly, are deer caught in Sarah McLachlan's headlights.
She is, this week, being challenged in a civil case in B.C. Supreme Court for copyright infringement. A record producer, Darryl Neudorf, is seeking a share of royalties from her first album, Touch. He claims to have co-produced and co-written several songs on the album, including Vox, Steaming, Sad Clown and Strange World.
Much has been written about what's at stake monetarily. But no matter what the outcome of the case, McLachlan -- in the spirit of "Any publicity is good publicity" -- will, I suspect, end up making more money out of this than losing it. Her publicist must be doing handstands: every major newspaper in Canada has plastered the divine Sarah's face on its front page.
What no one has discussed is the merit of the songs being fought over.
That is, are they any good? Are they worth the price being put on them? Would you want to claim ownership to them?
I'm pretty sure I wouldn't.
The songs on Touch, written when McLachlan was 19, are look-at-me sensitive, weighed down in heavy gothic images -- a reminder what a self-absorbed drag you could be when you were 19.
Vox, for example, is high-school year book poetry at its most embarrassing:
"Through your eyes the strains of battle like a brooding storm/Your up and down these pristine velvet walls like focus never forms/My walls are getting wider and my eyes are drawn astray/I see you now a vague deception of a dying day/Oh, why?"
Oh why, indeed. The strains of battle like a brooding storm? Your up and down these pristine velvet walls like focus never forms? Whoever penned these lyrics was still wrestling with the concepts of simile and imagery, not to mention the politics of dating.
In Sad Clown, for instance, the rain falls down "like silence in a shroud." Her companion's eyes in Strange World are "twisted down to a dew entrailed ground." In Steaming, she's "on that pallet steaming, spinning/Sound in circles dreaming."
Besides making you dizzy, is there, you have to ask yourself, anything in those lyrics even remotely connected to real-life relationships? Real-life relationships aren't that vague. They aren't that ethereal. Usually, they're about behaving yourself in front of the in-laws and not farting in bed.
But McLachlan is of the school of pop music a woman friend calls "whine rock," a tribe of very popular New Age chanteuses -- Jewel, Tori Amos, Natalie Imbruglia, Jann Arden, to name a few -- who have gone public with their suffering. They're pop's equivalent of Oprah, music based on the belief that naked self-indulgence is somehow revealing. That there are so many of them says something disturbing, I think, about how we are beginning to view love.
Maybe, time will change that. McLachlan, for example, is married and hopes, she has said, to have children.
I can't wait until diaper rash arrives for her, or the sacrifice of maintaining a relationship for longer than a decade. It should make for more concrete songs.
And in a Rolling Stone cover interview this April, she discussed, among other things, her talent for burping loudly in public. I found this encouraging.
Pete McMartin can be reached at email@example.com or at 605-2905.