Vancouver-by-way-of-Halifax's Sarah McLachlan had her career break worldwide in 1997 with Surfacing, after gradually building a loyal fan base in Canada following her 1988 debut. A few reviews ago, I commented on the impressive mass of music pumped out by Black Label Society during their career. Well, Sarah McLachlan's album output has been pretty much the exact opposite (this marks what I believe to be the first and last time in existence that "Sarah McLachlan" and "Black Label Society" will be mentioned together in the same sentence). Laws Of Illusion is just her seventh studio album...actually, it's more like six-and-a-half, as 2006's Wintersong was almost all covers of traditional Christmas music. Clearly, she likes to work at her own pace, a luxury derived from her success that has afforded her the opportunity to organize her Lilith Fair touring festival, devote time to philanthropic efforts, focus on having kids, and navigate the waters of her 2008 separation and subsequent divorce from Ashwin Sood, the now-former drummer from her band.
The subject of the disintegration of her marriage appears to inform most of the lyrical content on her latest release, falling in line with the contemplative and vulnerable downbeat lyrical themes that she's explored throughout her career. A somewhat new wrinkle is added here in the form of more feelings of bitterness (understandably so), with McLachlan holding little back in her words towards her (presumably) ex, such as these from "Forgiveness":
Loving lying enemy, I have seen your face before/Never thought again I'd see/Didn't want to anymore
And you ask for forgiveness/You're asking too much/I have sheltered my heart in a place you can't touch/Don't believe when you tell me your love is real/Because you don't know much about heaven boy/If you have to hurt to feel
The song demonstrates the type of stark ballad that she does so well (like the popular-at-funerals song "Angel"), building from a mostly piano-accompanied first half into a fuller arrangement that brings in the rest of her band and adds nice touches with McLachlan's own higher octave background vocals, a device used extensively on the album to great effect. A good half of Laws Of Illusion is of the restrained variety and most of these songs work, with a couple of exceptions. The sleepy "Changes", despite some interesting production that includes a theremin, just never gets going. "Rivers Of Love" finds McLachlan getting a little more jazzy than usual, with unremarkable results. "Don't Give Up On Us" is an excellent prototypical McLachlan mid-tempo number, alluding lyrically to a period where she retained some optimism that her relationship could be salvaged. "U Want Me 2" borrows Prince's song title shorthand style for another great piece of pop (by the way, those last two songs already appeared as the obligatory new material on McLachlan's best of collection from 2008, which is kind of a burn for fans who would have picked up the album mainly to get tracks they didn't already own). The album's two final songs find McLachlan doing her own vocal-heavy version of English artist Susan Enan's "Bring On The Wonder" (she had contributed background vocals to Enan's original recording) and a quiet, rearranged piano and strings version of "Love Come", which appears earlier on the album in fuller form. Both versions work quite well, though I preferred the original and its clever use of staccato violin sounds.
"Awakenings" opens the album and it finds McLachlan rocking out more than I've ever heard her before. Loud guitars and in-your-face drums driving a stuttering rhythm pattern, punctuated by crashing cymbals, only act as a fake-out, however, as to a possibly heavier new direction. It's one the finer songs she's ever recorded, but the rest of the album's more upbeat material returns to well-worn territory. Not that that's a bad thing, mind you - songs like "Illusions Of Bliss" and "Out Of Tune" are great pieces of songwriting that are well executed. Only the sappy, bouncy pop of "Loving You Is Easy" fails to engage, even if it is nice to hear McLachlan deviating from the album's depressing lyrics for a brief moment as she appears to find love again.
McLachlan's strong and instantly identifiable mezzo-soprano voice, proficient piano skills, and adept songwriting ability make her, in my opinion, one of the more talented artists working today. It's not everyone who has one their songs ("Angel") have this kind of impact on a couple of unlikely people: it brings Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee to tears whenever he hears it and Run DMC's Darryl "DMC" McDaniels credits it with saving his life. Pierre Marchand, who has produced all but the first of McLachlan's albums, also co-wrote eight of the songs on here, which is substantially more than he's contributed to any of her past albums. As strong a collection of songs as Laws Of Illusion contains, it can feel a little too predictable and familiar. Here's hoping the next album finds McLachlan and Marchand challenging themselves a little more.