In 1993 I was a musical outcast. The flames of grunge were burning through my middle school hallways, igniting the very essence of adolescence among my classmates, but I was solely drawn to the music of another era. I was thirteen years old at the time, immersing myself in the mysticism of The Band, the wit of Bob Dylan and the freedom of the Grateful Dead. And, while I could appreciate the significance of the cultural revolution that surrounded me, I found myself struggling to connect with the current music. I may have simply been too young to appreciate the nuances of anger and cynicism that rightfully influenced early 1990s rock 'n' roll; for me, I needed a safer way into the angst and unrest that surrounded my generation in those pivotal years.
I was content to stubbornly write off contemporary music -- rebelling against the youth rebellion in my own little way -- until a friend of mine slipped me a CD in the cafeteria. I went to a small public school, where only a hallway separated the middle and high schools, and despite the close physical proximity to each other, we young kids paid great reverence to our high school elders. I remember eating lunch one day in early November -- and feeling infinitely cool in my painted Chuck Taylors and Navy Pea Coat -- when a high school friend ventured across the cafeteria and handed me a copy of Sarah McLachalan's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. "It isn't like other music on the radio," she told me. "It's different -- just listen."
These were words of high praise coming from a high schooler. So that afternoon, I went home and experienced an album that would eventually become a fundamental roadmap through the emotions of life, love and growing up. In rare moments of our musical journeys, an album opens up a portal in ourselves that we didn't know was there -- or hadn't yet been unlocked. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was that album for me -- it taught me how to feel through music; it allowed me to access that teenage angst and unrest in the safest way, in a comforting way, and in a way that would gently lead me through my teen, and later, college years.
We all know the story after Fumbling Towards Ecstasy: in 1997, Sarah's breakthrough U.S. album, Surfacing, was released, generating a number of Billboard Top 100 singles, and then came the launch of the societal-shifting Lilith Fair. Since then, much has been written about Sarah McLachlan. There have been countless stories about her role in advancing women's voices in the music industry, of her influence on the cyclical resurgences of singer-songwriters, and of her integration between music and social causes. But it is her musical staying power that primarily underlies all of these issues. Over the course of her 25-year career, Sarah McLachlan has successfully cultivated and maintained an audience that now spans generations and reaches across multiple continents, while musically fusing a cornucopia of sounds from folk to electronica -- even venturing into a genre-bending hip hop collaboration with D.M.C.
This type of sustained relevance and appeal is rooted in tender melodies, vulnerable lyrics and a sense of authenticity and exposed soul that is so heavily laced through a Sarah McLachlan album that the audience has no choice but to feel their own emotions within the songs and embrace the music as a familiar extension of themselves. Never has this been truer than with the release of Shine On, Ms. McLachlan's first studio album in four years.
Listening to Shine On is like reading a book of transformational life moments, with each song serving as its own chapter in a tale of love, loss, deception, resilience, rebirth and, ultimately, independence. "In Your Shoes," Shine On's lead track is an empowered statement of survival and freedom -- an anthem in the joy of reclaiming one's voice and spirit, while shedding the past that may have held you down. Though it is only when hearing the rest of Shine On, and unearthing the path of songs that led to "In Your Shoes," that its message becomes as powerful as it is.
Woven throughout Shine On is the theme that happiness and pain are inherently connected, but that the recognition of both allows for acceptance. "Monsters," a haunting rocker dripping with anger and deceit, flows into "Broken Heart," a calmer, almost hopeful, reflection of heartache and sadness, and "Song for My Father" is a poignant recounting of the comfort that daughters find in burying their heads in their fathers' arms, especially during those times when their "worlds have come undone."
Like any great Sarah McLachlan album, Shine On succeeds in its universal humanity. During a time when music is far too often pre-packaged through audience market research, Shine On captures an unapologetically honest and raw side of the human spirit, and wraps it in a 13-song tapestry that is accessible to any listener who has ever opened themselves to the full potential of life -- with all of the hardship, strength and triumph that may shine through.
Shine On was released by Verve Records on May 6, 2014.