Worth waiting for


November 13, 2003|By Steve Morse | Steve Morse,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Albums are often a diary of an artist's most recent life events. For Sarah McLachlan, that might suggest her retreat from the music business to have a child and settle into a well-earned, blissed-out, post-Lilith Fair life in Vancouver, British Columbia. Even the title of her new record, Afterglow, hints at such bliss.

So much for assumptions.

Although Afterglow is her first all-new studio disc in six years, the subject matter actually goes back to her relationship concerns from eight to 10 years ago - before she began dating her husband and long before she had a child.

That's quite all right in this case, though, because the album has a timeless appeal that should vault it to the top of McLachlan's discography. It might not match the sales of 1997's Surfacing (which sold nearly 6 million copies and spawned four hit singles, including "Building a Mystery"), but it's the kind of haunting, ballad-rich record for which McLachlan is famous.

A breathtaking intimacy runs through Afterglow, which was recorded in her home studio in Vancouver and in the Montreal home studio of longtime producer/collaborator Pierre Marchand. McLachlan is now a mother - she and husband Ashwin Sood (also her drummer) had a child named India only a few months after McLachlan's own mother died two years ago. The album was put on hold for a maternity leave, and McLachlan has confessed to great difficulty in finding the time to write songs, compared with pre-motherhood days when she would retreat to a woodsy cabin and spend weeks turning them out.

But the new songs don't feel rushed. She can still be excessively literary ("Your love in all its finery tears up the darkness all around me," she sings in "Trainwreck"), but that has always been part of her charm. And in the spare "Answer," she adds, "In the burden of uncertainty/ I will be your solid ground." William Butler Yeats would have loved it.

For the first time, McLachlan wrote all the songs on piano, and the melodic subtlety attests to that. There's a gorgeously reflective piano coda on "Perfect Girl," about failing to live up to a boyfriend's unrealistic image of her. It has a stately, Peter Gabriel feel (not surprising since Gabriel was one of her idols) and the climactic line, "I can't compete." But then she follows with "Dirty Little Secret" and its confession: "If I had the chance, love, you know I would not hesitate to tell you all the things I never said before/ Don't tell me it's too late, because I've run out of illusions to keep me warm at night."

McLachlan must have endured some serious sadness recently, for several songs reflect it. The new single, "Fallen," is actually one of the worst songs on the record - an overwrought track that does, however, reveal the depth of her pain: "It's the bitter taste of losing everything that I've held so dear."

More positive love songs are the pretty ballad "Push" and the passionately erotic "Trainwreck."

But the showstopper is "Answer," with McLachlan crying quietly, "I need you in my life." She describes the tune as "a total, 2 o'clock in the morning, whispered-in-your-ears headphone track." Presumably, her new married life and child have eased some of her tensions, though it may take another eight to 10 years for us to find out. Until then, we can do our own processing of Afterglow. And it's well worth it, especially if you're already a McLachlan fan.

Sarah McLachlan

Afterglow (Arista) ***

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