Judging by the lyrics on Afterglow, much has transpired in Sarah McLachlan’s world since she released her last batch of new songs six years ago. The terrorist attacks left her fragile and forlorn, she fell rapturously in love, and she’s had major confrontations, presumably with the same person. If the lyrics speak the truth, she became, to say the least, high-maintenance; she even refers to herself as ”a train wreck waiting to happen.”
Given such experiences, listeners might expect ”Afterglow” to be a stormy emotional journey through fizzy highs and despairing lows. But McLachlan has never been one to let it rip, and she isn’t interested in starting now. Comely but slight, ”Afterglow” works hard to stay on a calm, unprepossessing middle course despite McLachlan’s intimate soul-searching. No matter the scenario, McLachlan sings each song in the same hushed, composed tone, only rarely pushing her soprano to dramatic peaks. Whether confronting post-9/11 uncertainty (”World on Fire”) or pleading with a friend seduced by ”the glare of the spotlight” (”Drifting”), she doesn’t convey much beyond numb tranquility.
The same mood informs the arrangements, which have a stately grandeur that too often devolves into preciousness. It’s easy to imagine the musicians treading gingerly around McLachlan, afraid to hit a drum too hard or crank the guitar amps too loud. Potentially powerful songs like ”Train Wreck” and ”World on Fire” are reduced to musical balms. Only on ”Stupid,” in which she lacerates herself for being a ”simpleton” by ”falling into old familiar shoes” (come again?), does the music turn bombastic and, in doing so, finally mesh with her inner turmoil.
”Afterglow” is a marked step down from ”Surfacing,” on which McLachlan and producer Pierre Marchand (who returns for ”Afterglow”) toughened up her music without compromising its elegance. Alas, little here is as driven as that disc’s ”Sweet Surrender” or ”Building a Mystery.” Instead, ”Afterglow” is encased in an aural glaze, as if McLachlan were now angling to be the Enya of the Lilith Fair set. Speaking of which, ”Afterglow” is perhaps most interesting in the way it recalls a time when female balladeers far outnumbered those of the opposite sex. During the Lilith years, the popularity of McLachlan, Jewel, and their peers had us wondering what happened to their male counterparts. These days, the roles have flip-flopped: The soft-rock musings of John Mayer, Jason Mraz, and their like dominate, while women singer-songwriters are far less prevalent. Sadly, the new role models for pop women are J. Lo (vocally challenged but a master of multitasking) and the American Idol finalists (originality-challenged but masters of lung power). It’s enough to make McLachlan even more despondent — if she’d only allow herself to get upset over it.