Let me throw down the mother of gauntlets as I start this piece.
Of all the bands and artists I’ve seen perform live over my fifty years of life, no one has ever exceeded Sarah McLachlan in intensity and performance. And, yes, I’m comparing her to Rush, to Yes, to Tears for Fears, to Neal Morse, to Kansas, and to a whole host of others. I’ve seen McLachlan numerous times, and I’ve yet to see anyone give as much as she does.
She gives every single thing she has, and she always has.
There. The gauntlet has been thrown down.
Sadly, too many readers—and, undoubtedly, progarchy readers—know her for her somewhat sappy and quasi-ideological songs from the late 1990s and after.
Yet, to look at her first three studio albums is to see an artist as artist, an artist before the fame, an artist who knew and loved the art, an artist who simply wanted to become one with her art. No angels, no building mysteries, and nothing fallen. Just pure intensity–an artist, her heart, her soul, her words, her bandmates, her engineer, and her producer.
McLachlan’s first album, 1989’s TOUCH, remains a delicate masterpiece, fragile yet held together invincibly by sheer force of honesty. Just in her 20s, she already offered the Canadian equivalent of Mark Hollis on this album, full of proggy pop worthy of XTC and Tears for Fears. Indeed, TOUCH—with its piano and 12-string guitars—might very well have been the perfect mix of Hackett-era Genesis and later Talk Talk. Though each song on TOUCH is a pop song, the album as a whole is a prog album, having created the most coherent and unique of atmospheres.
I have no idea what to call this type of music. That is, how to label it or place it in a genre. It’s pop, to be certain. Very clever pop. I suppose there’s some Talking Heads influence in here, but I don’t know either band well enough to say for certain. Regardless, I love it. I don’t pull it out of the CD rack as often as, say, CLOSE TO THE EDGE. But, every once in a while, a cold, grey morning calls for the wonderfully cynical and yet simultaneously innocent sounds of Blancmange. Utterly clever.
In my post two days ago offering a twenty-year retrospective of RAOUL AND THE KINGS OF SPAIN by Tears for Fears, I made some bald claims:
Orzabal has never embraced the term “progressive,” identifying it with Pink Floyd, but he is certainly the most experimental pop musician alive—rivaled only by Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Robert Smith, Andy Partridge, and Peter Gabriel. From my perspective, Orzabal is the greatest living pop musician, but I think this would be open to debate. And, of course, the debate would demand a proper definition of pop.
A good friend of mine (a fellow music lover and a fellow Kansan), Derek, properly challenged this assertion of mine while also admitting how much he loves Orzabal.
I did my best to defend my claim. Here’s the conversation:
Derek: “From my perspective, Orzabal is the greatest living pop musician…” Wow! I’m still trying to wrap my head around that statement. Not disagreeing necessarily, but wow. I love Orzabal’s work but also equally love Neil Finn’s work, especially with Crowded House (and double especially on the album “Temple of Low Men”). Oleta Adams with Orzabal on “Me and My Big Ideas” is just sublime. I had forgotten how much she brought to the TFF sound. Hiring her was a stroke of genius on the part of Orzabal and Smith.
Me: Derek–it’s debatable, for sure. But, I think about Orzabal’s willingness to experiment–and his slow but excellent body of work over 30+ years. I’m excluding straight rock and prog musicians in the comment. I must admit, I don’t know Neil Finn’s work beyond a few wonderful songs he wrote in the 80s. But, for example, Michael Stipe is good, but his music sounds dated to me in a way that Orzabal’s doesn’t.
Derek: All compelling points, Bradley. The point about Orzabal’s “slow but excellent body of work over 30+ years” is well taken. If you can, give Crowded House’s “Temple of Low Men” a spin. It is downright criminal that that album wasn’t a smash. The song “When You Come” should have been just as big of a hit as “Don’t Dream It’s Over” or “Something So Strong.” Finn is hands down one of my favorite pop music lyricists, bar none. An example from the aforementioned “When You Come.”
When you come across the sea
Me like a beacon guiding you to safety
The sooner the better now
And when you come the hills
Will breathe like a baby
Pulled up heaving from the bottom of the ocean
The sooner the better now
When you come to cover me with your kisses
Fresh like a daisy chained up in a lion’s den
The sooner the better now
I’ll know you by the thunderclap
Pouring like a rain of blood to my emotions
And that is why
I stumble to my knees
And I haven’t even mentioned the other amazing songs from Temple of Low Men like “I Feel Possessed,” “Into Temptation,” “Sister Madly,” and “Better Be Home Soon.”
Me: The first master was Brian Wilson, in my opinion, but his career, for obvious reasons, faded quickly.
Derek: Agreed 100%.
Me: Andy Partridge is brilliant, but he’s so dark and cynical. It’s hard to take some of his music, especially when he’s not tempered by Dave Gregory. Then, Paul McCartney, but, again, a career that was stunning but relatively short–though some of his best work was with early Wings.
Let me try to defend my claim that Orzabal is the greatest with a bit more gusto and in a larger space. A few caveats, however. Yes, I’m an American. Yes, I’m prone to hyperbole. Yes, I’m an American prone to hyperbole! The kind of hyperbole that makes non-Americans uneasy. Neil Peart is the greatest drummer who ever lived. George Washington is the greatest American ever. SPIRIT OF EDEN is the greatest prog album ever written. KIND OF BLUE is the greatest jazz ever made. The Aeneid is the greatest story ever written. Etc. Etc. Etc. I plead guilty to hyperbole.
I also plead guilty to wielding strong loyalties.
So let me try to explain what I mean about Roland Orzabal.
First, he is experimental, and he’s more than willing to take chances, wherever those chances lead him. He’s willing to embrace high pop (Sgt. Peppers), art rock, soul, gospel, rock, power pop, prog, minimalism, electronica, and dance. His very output and his very life seems to transcend labels in the best way possible, just writing what needs to be written, when and where it needs to be written. And, this is just within his individual songs.
His albums, each taken as a whole, are equally diverse:
THE HURTING: Minimalist New Wave
SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR: Progressive Pop (Art Rock)
SEEDS OF LOVE: Jazz, theatric soul and pop
ELEMENTAL: Atmospheric and moody pop
RAOUL: Autobiographical earnest pop
EVERYBODY LOVES A HAPPY ENDING: High Art Rock/pop; progressive pop
Orzabal’s B-sides: every thing and every genre imaginable.
Second, think about his competition, as I mentioned in the above discussion with my friend, Derek. Brian Wilson was brilliant, but, for sad and obvious reasons, he has not been able to sustain his career. Sir Paul McCartney had an amazing run with the Beatles and with early Wings, but, he too, wasn’t able to sustain it. His pop became more and more bland as the mid 70s became the late 70s. Robert Smith is a master as well, but, frankly, he’s so much better when he’s writing gothic rock than when he writes pop. DISINTEGRATION is The Cure’s best album because it’s not pop in any way. There’s no “Friday, I’m in Love,” to bring the album down. Peter Gabriel is Orzabal’s greatest rival, but even his music has a sameness (relatively speaking), at least over time, that Orzabal has avoided. At this point, Gabriel is simply offering (brilliant, of course) reworked versions of his music from the 70s and 80s. And, as great as Andy Partridge is (my gosh, think about the gorgeousness of a song such as Bungalow), he’s so unremittingly dark and bitter. He desperately needed a Dave Gregory to temper him. Other candidates are out there. Sarah McLachlan? She made three great albums, then descended into blandness. Sixpence None the Richer? Again, wonderful, but lost it after three albums. Michael Stipe? So great at one point, but his music seems dated now.
Third, Orzabal’s lyrics. Whether telling a story, railing against a politician, writing about depression, or simply stringing works together for the love of the words themselves, Orzabals lyrics are always very clever, and so very able to mixed note and/with meaning so perfectly. I don’t always agree with his politics or religious views (I’m probably as libertarian and conservative as he is liberal; and I’m also a practicing (if poor) Roman Catholic, while I understand he is not only a lapsed Catholic but an atheist), but I always take him and his ideas seriously. And, whether he’s writing about love, loss, redemption, physics, or anything else that matters, he’s very, very good! His lyrics mix intelligence with whimsy, but they’re also just so beautifully constructed.
Fourth, his voice. Granted, you always know when Orzabal is singing. But, he can vary it in so many ways, and he can make the strangest, weirdest voices, when the music demands it. For the longest time (well, for thirty years), I thought this was all just studio trickery. I was wrong. After seeing him live, I realize just how capable of goodness and weirdness(!) he is.
Fifth, he’s utterly sincere—whether its in his music, his lyrics, his views, his moods, or his first novel. Whatever it is, it has meaning to him. One of my greatest pet peeves is when an artist tries to mock his own success or mock those who adore him and his art. It’s one thing to be humorous and self-deprecating (both of which are wonderful and necessary in this rather insane world). It’s a completely different thing to mock one’s fans. There’s nothing cynical about Orzabal’s art. What you see is what you get, though, of course, always layered and nuanced.
One major admission. I could not have written this piece a week ago. As I mentioned in my concert review of TFF the other day, I had assumed for thirty years that TFF was at their best in the studio. I’d dismissed their live performances as uninspired. Granted, I did so out of complete ignorance, having never seen them play life until six days ago.
Seeing them perform in Denver last Sunday night made me realize just how wrong I was. A year or so ago, I wrote about SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR as the best pop album ever written. Now that I’ve seen TFF live, I can state with conviction and evidence that Orzabal is our greatly living pop artist.
And, I’ll make this prediction. The forthcoming TFF album will be an unexpected and satisfying work of art that will take the pop and rock world by storm. Orzabal and Smith aren’t living on or in the past. They are at the absolute height of their game right now. And, of course, they’ve earned every single accolade they will receive.
Ok, so it’s not a perfect album, but it’s about as good as pop gets.
As I finished my junior year of high school, Tears for Fears released its second album, the first to make it huge in the U.S., Songs from the Big Chair.
The first album, The Hurting, proved the sheer brilliance of Orzabal and Smith, but it also felt very, very, very, very (ok, I’ll stop–but, really, very) constricting. As Orzabal and Smith released their primal screams and healed their own hurts, the listener entered into a sort of padded but rhythmic asylum for 41 minutes and 39 seconds.
Possibly the breath would simply disappear if that album went on 21 more seconds. Imagine Andy Summers shouting “mother!” or Phil Collins begging for his “mama” but with serious prog sensibilities. Well, you get The Hurting. Enough.
In contrast, Songs from the Big Chair, though still thematically dealing with emotional and mental trauma, sends the listener into realms of openness and euphoria. The entire album is full of possibilities, full of what might have beens–all of them good, a cornucopia of aural pleasures. For the listener, Songs from the Big Chair is one huge intake of morning air in the Rocky Mountains. This is pop at its purest, achieved, really, only by the Beatles and XTC. Rarified.
Side one (yes, I’m old enough to remember sides). Frankly, the two American hits, “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, are the weakest tracks on the entire album. But, that said, they’re still brilliant. “Shout” is righteous pop, filled with a soaring guitar that might fit nicely on a Big Country album. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a clever dig at oppression and imperialism, dressed in a sunny tune.
Both of these songs played so often on radio and MTV in the mid 1980s in the United States that it’s impossible for me to avoid thinking about Apple Computer, Ronald Reagan, the Icelandic summit, or John Hughes when hearing even a few notes of either.
“The Working Hour,” track two, rings with jazz flourishes and an urgency lyrically and musically. It begins with pure taste, as brass and keyboards gently dance around one another. Though only one second shorter than “Shout”, the song has much more depth to it. It’s Orzabal’s guitar work, however, that makes the song so beautiful. That, and his voice–the depth and anguish of it all. It all ends up being a song that never ages, never becomes tiresome.
Track four on side one, “Mother’s Talk,” has the percussive feel of much of The Hurting but without the claustrophobia. Indeed, it feels far more Latin American and than it does European. Or, perhaps, it has a bit of Peter Gabriel in it. Whatever it is, it works wonderfully, a perfect way to end side one. As with The Hurting, the lyrics are gut-wrenching and desperate, dealing with the fears of conformity and the inability to resist what is clearly dangerous in a community. In the end, the weak person destroys not only his own soul but the very integrity of society as well.
Side Two, a dramatic tale from beginning to end. Starting with ominous notes from a grand piano, Orzabal picks up lyrically from the previous album. “I believe,” he cries in his best croon, an affirmation that the therapy expressed in The Hurting has accomplished something. Well, at least that’s his hope. By the end of the song, however, Orzabal expresses nothing but doubt. Who are you to think that you can shape a life? No, too late.
The song slides perfectly into “Broken”–less than three-minutes long, but full of 80s production–with big and angry guitar, a relentlessly driving bass, and intricate keyboards. “Between the searching and the need to work it out,” Orzabal laments, he deceived himself by believing all would be well. Impossible. “Broken. We are broken.”
Then, the haunting line: a moment only between being a child and being a man, seeing one’s life in continuity, all that is good and all that is wrong. Tempus fugit. A moment.
Back to full-blown, over the top, crooning pop: “Head over Heels.” Sheesh, Orzabal explains, I just wanted to talk, to enjoy your company. I didn’t realize this was going to get so deep, so quickly. He then explains that his family desired so much of him and for him. He. Well, he just wanted some freedom to find his own path and his own creativity. So hard to do. “I’m on the line, one open mind.”
As the song fades out with a chorus of “la-la-la-la (repeat x20),” Orzabal’s voice twists and the album returns to “Broken,” ending, strangely, with a live audience cheering wildly. As the audience’s applause dies down, swirling, psychedelic keyboard and hypnotic voices emerge. Again, with the tasteful guitar of side one. The final six minutes of the album seems like something that might have appeared on a pre-pop Simple Minds or a Tangerine Dream album. Electronica not for dance, but for centering and psychic probing.
The lyrics to the final song, “Listen,” conclude nothing but add a certain mystery to the whole album. Only a few lines repeat: Russia attempts to heal, while the pilgrims head to America. Meanwhile, Orzabal chants his desire to soothe feelings and bring mercy. Spanish voices cry in bewilderment.
The final noise of the album: percussion that sounds as though an ocean wave has overcome all.
For me, the album is the sound track to my senior year of high school. My debate colleague and one of my life-long friends, Ron Strayer, and I listened to the album over and over again, adding the b-side “Pharaohs.”
Frankly, I think the overwhelming popularity of Tears for Fears in the 1980s and some of the pretentiousness of their lyrics has relegated them merely to 80’s status, locked in that decade as though a museum piece. They deserve more applause and attention from those of us who love music. I never particularly liked The Seeds of Love (1989), but I think Elemental (1993) and Raoul and the Kings of Spain (1995) are some of the most creatively crafted rock/pop albums ever made.
Though, the final Tears for Fears album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, could be an XTC-style Dukes of Stratosphere paean to the Beatles, it works. It has some of the best pop written. . . well, since Abbey Road. “Who Killed Tangerine?” especially has to be one of the most interesting pop songs of all time.
But, these are topics for other posts. For now, enjoy a rediscovery of Songs from the Big Chair.
Sarah McLachlan, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993). I can’t explain why this album means so much to me, but it does. I love McLachlan’s voice and her very effective use of hammond organ as well as her Talk Talk-esque atmospherics.
While the album as a whole has a very pop feel, especially after the much more experimental and minimalist first two albums (Touch and Solace), it still holds together brilliantly. Even 19 years later.
The second half of Fumbling Toward Ecstasy is especially powerful. In particular, the best songs are the searching “Ice,” the driving “Hold On,” and the whimsical “Ice Cream.” Really, when one puts the song writing together with the production, one can only reasonably cry “genius.” Then, if you add “Fear” to this, there’s really nothing to do but drop one’s jaw. “Fear” is, simply put, one of the finest songs ever written. Every aspect of it is perfection defined. Words, meaning, arrangement, production. I might go so far as to argue this is the single best “pop” song ever written–and, yes, I’m not forgetting the Beatles. The Beatles never captured this depth of meaning or intent.
Wind in time rapes the flower on the vine/Nothing yields to shelter
And, importantly, Fumbling lacks the nasty anti-religious cant of her middle work (I’m not a purist about this, by any means, as Rush is one of my favorite bands; I can only take in your face skepticism a little more than I can take in your face evangelicalism). Her followup albums, especially Surfacing and Afterglow, are not only are weak lyrically, they’re weak musically, ranging into pure sap at times. “Angel” embodies the worst of McLachlan, though I’m sure she made an absolute mint on it.
Her latest album, Laws of Illusion, while not nearly as sappy or poppish as her middle work, is also not as interesting as her earliest work. Frankly, I hope McLachlan follows other serious pop artists such as Natalie Merchant, going into the more artistic realm rather than the more commercial. I assume she no longer needs the money to be commercial? Her voice could fit so perfectly in more experimental venues.
When I worked at the Organization of American Historians in graduate school, we would play all three of the first cds as we played Quake on the network (after business hours, of course). What a contrast. Yet, it worked. That, or we were all a little schizophrenic. Ok, let’s take this line of reasoning no further.
Believe it or not, I’ve seen McLachlan as many times in concert as I’ve seen Rush. Each performance is a delight. Indeed, she’s as good as anyone I’ve ever seen live. She completely throws herself into every performance. I very hope she will do the same with her forthcoming album.