A Personal History of Music, Day 8: “Sweet Surrender” by Sarah McLachlan

John Scalzi

A quarter of a century ago — so long ago that this site did not even exist — I wrote a long essay entitled “Why I Have a Soft Spot for Sarah McLachlan.” To get right to the spoiler, it was because, in no small way, I identified with her. As I wrote at the time:

We are both about the same age (she’s about a year older than I), and we both toil creatively, she as a musician and I as a writer. What’s more (and this is where I feel the greatest point of connection to her), we both started doing what we do right around the same time — she making music, and I writing humor columns and criticism. In that respect, I’ve seen an arc to her career that I’ve also followed (in a much more obscure and less financially remunerative way). I see where she is on her career path, and I see some parallels to my own.

I’ll include the actual essay as the first comment to this post so you can see it in full.

Looking back on the essay a quarter of a century later, some things strike me about it. The first is that I was, and this is no real surprise, unbelievably arrogant to compare my then-extremely modest career to McLachlan’s in any way. I was not so foolish that I did not take care to larder my comparisons with caveats and qualifications — even in my twenties I knew that comparing myself to a multi-platinum artist at the upswing of her career when I had produced nothing of note was, at best, hubristic — but no matter how you slice it, “Hey, this immensely successful person and I are sort of following the same career arc,” is a pretty nervy statement to make.

(Plus there are other wildly arrogant things in there, unrelated to Ms. McLachlan, among them me at 28 saying “I’m as good a writer as I ever wanted to be.” Oh, child. No. No, you weren’t. You were as good as you could be. There’s a difference.)

The second thing is that I still understand why the me of 1997 wanted to make that connection to McLachlan, and to the path she was taking in her career. To me at the time, it really did seem like she was carving her own determined path to success, more or less on her own terms; perhaps a little fumblingly, but even so. And, you know, that’s what I wanted for myself, too: To make my own way, on my own terms, maybe occasionally making mistakes and misfires, but even so. It helped that her music was right in my zone as well — vaguely alt-y with just enough drama and sincerity that I could see some of myself in there as well.

“Sweet Surrender,” which I offer here as an example, is a very good example of what attracted me musically to McLachlan in the first place: A desire to be loved and wanted and understood, the hope that the person being addressed can provide those things, and might want to — and at the same time some uncertainty that the singer’s desire for these things will interpreted correctly. What’s happening in this song can be confused with passivity, but it’s not that; conscious choices are being made, along with the recognition that not every choice in play here is the singer’s. All to a mellow-yet-hooky groove. Musically, McLachlan was never a shouter, but it didn’t make her less persuasive when telling her stories. She knew her strengths and played to them. Those strengths worked for me.

So, you may reasonably ask, what about now? A quarter of a century on from this song and the essay I wrote about McLachlan, and two decades into a writing and publishing career with its own share of successes, do I still identify with her?

I don’t, but I think it’s been replaced with something maybe more realistic, and better. The parallels between us that I saw at the time were always tenuous at best; she was doing her own thing and I mapped my own progress to hers in a way that highlighted certain facts and elided others. The facts fit because I made them fit, not because they did so naturally. I did it because I admired her creativity and her path, and because she was close enough to me in age and apparent sensibility that I wanted to see myself as her peer.

I wasn’t her peer, twenty-five years ago. I’m not her peer today. I don’t need to be her peer, or to imagine myself as one. I’m at a place in my own life and career where I am content to be what I always actually was: A fan of McLachlan’s, an admirer of how she moved through her professional world, and appreciative of the music she’s made, which is now part of my life. She had, and has, her own path, and I have mine. They intersect in her songs. That’s enough.

— JS

10 Comments on “A Personal History of Music, Day 8: “Sweet Surrender” by Sarah McLachlan”

  1. That essay from 25 years ago. Please note that 28-year-old John Scalzi has made certain stylistic and textual choices in this piece that 53-year-old John Scalzi probably would not. It’s presented here unaltered and with full acknowledgement that, uhhhhhh, it has its moments.

    (Also, unrelated to this essay but to the piece above, don’t feel that in these comments you need to make an argument that I am actually McLachlan’s peer. Folks, I am very happy with my career and I think you all know I have no lack of ego. I don’t need to be reassured. Thank you.)

    (Oh, and: Skip the sad-pet-montage-to-the-tune-of-“Angel” comments. We get it, it’s a trope.)

    Why I Have A Soft Spot For Sarah McLachlan

    Basically, because I identify with her.

    Some qualifications to that. We are, of course, nothing alike — I’m a guy, she’s a woman. She’s a famous, multi-platinum-selling musician with four to six albums (depending on how you count them), whereas I am an unknown-if-still-somewhat-moderately-successful writer who has yet to sell a book. She seems sort of earthy-crunchy, and I have a tendency to mock those sorts of people more than emulate them. Her songs can be glaringly personal at times; most of my writing is amusingly glib — fun to read, but generally I don’t think you come away from it feeling you’ve gotten a glimpse of my darkest inner corners (tried being ansgty when I was younger, and it didn’t take — I’m just congenitally cheerful. It happens).

    Be that as it may, there are points where we connect. We are both about the same age (she’s about a year older than I), and we both toil creatively, she as a musician and I as a writer. What’s more (and this is where I feel the greatest point of connection to her), we both started doing what we do right around the same time — she making music, and I writing humor columns and criticism. In that respect, I’ve seen an arc to her career that I’ve also followed (in a much more obscure and less financially remunerative way). I see where she is on her career path, and I see some parallels to my own.

    Examples, you say. All righty, then. Touch, Sarah’s first album, released here in the states in ’89. Sarah was something like 19, 20. Touch is a pretty good album, but Sarah’s main influences — notably Peter Gabriel, and lots of him — couldn’t have been more transparent if they had actually come and sat in on the album. There’s talent there, but what’s also apparent is an artist who is struggling to find her voice and falling back on the voices of her idols to prop her up when her own inexperience threatens to get the best of her. It’s to her credit that she chose Gabriel as an influence and not, say, Loverboy or someone like that. (If you doubt the influence Gabriel, et al. have on her at this point in her career, check out the cover of “Solisbury Hill” on the CD single of “Steaming” — it’s a note-for-note rip of the version of “Solisbury Hill” found on Gabriel’s Plays Live album. Nothing subtle about it.)

    Around the same time (and without sounding too touchy-feely about it), I was starting my own journey is a writer — in fact, I reviewed Touch — and I was pretty much in the same boat. I think I have some talent (ahem, ahem), but my writing at the time was as much an agglomeration of my influences as it was my own voice. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that — rare is the creative person whose voice emerges, Athena-like, fully formed out of their skull — and I also feel that my own choice of influences (H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, PJ O’Rourke and Robert Heinlein in more contemporary times) was providential rather than regrettable.

    Forward to 1991, and Solace, Sarah’s second album. On this one, Sarah’s own voice is coming though loud and clear — it’s just not hitting on all cylinders (Solace is, in my opinion, her weakest album). She’s dived into the deep end of the pool, now all she had to do was learn to swim. Here, she’s thrashing about a bit. As it happens, in 1991, I was doing a bit of thrashing around myself — I had been hired right out of college to be the movie critic of the Fresno Bee, and had to prove myself to a newsroom of severely skeptical folks (to give y’all some perspective on this, when I started as critic, I was 22 — far and away the youngest full-time professional movie critic in the United States. When I stopped doing it, at 26, I was still the youngest). I managed to do it (which is to say, I was not fired, and no one said to my face I didn’t deserve my job), but there were plenty of hiccups on the way.

    Forward again to 1994 and Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (released in ’93, but I picked it up in ’94, so it’s all the same to me). Here, I think, Sarah made the album she’d been wanting to make for a while: strong songs, good music, and it’s all hers — the influences still there, sure, but they’re as influences should be: a subtle flavoring, not the main course. It’s Sarah’s voice you hear loud and clear, literally of course and also artistically. She’s hit her stride. She’s where she wanted to be. On my end, I felt much the same way. I loved my job as movie critic, I had started writing humor columns again, and I was where I wanted to be with my career and my life. This is was also right around the time that I met the person that I would eventually marry — and coincidentally, so did Sarah: Ashwin Sood, drummer and eventual McLachlan spouse, makes his first appearance on the Fumbling record.

    Now here we are in 1997 (or we are when as I write this — October 1997, to be precise), and Surfacing has been out for a few months. It’s Sarah’s most assured album — which is to say it sounds as if it’s coming from someone who is confident and comfortable in her own skin, who’s gotten beyond having to prove herself and can now concentrate strengthening and deepening her own voice. As a total album, I’d give the edge to Fumbling as her best one to date — but Surfacing comes close, and the first three songs are probably the best she’s ever done, particularly “Sweet Surrender”. She’s her own person, without doubt.

    Again, I’m feeling the same way with my own life. I’m at a point where I feel comfortable with my talents and myself — I’m as good a writer as I ever wanted to be, and I’ve proven that to myself and others over and over again. It’s not in dispute. What I can work on now is refining my voice — and letting it take me where it will. As a result, I’ve written my first book and working on more beyond that. It’s a good place to be, and I’m happy to be here — and ready to see what happens next.

    So that’s why I have a soft spot for Sarah McLachlan. We’re not psychically linked, I don’t think I would really qualify as a freaky Sarah fan boy (no posters, no scrabbling for McLachlan ephemera, no nutty, half-dazed letters written in an extremely small hand), and I don’t suppose if she or I took a creative turn for the worst, the other would notice in the slightest (well, I’d notice, since I’d put on the album and then go “Gosh, this really stinks.” But you know what I mean — it wouldn’t have an effect on my output, or vice-versa, if I happened to be the one who tanked).

    For all that, I take a quiet, displaced pride in her success; she’s one of us — of my generation, from a creative place I can identify with, and with many of the same concerns, hopes, etc. And I see some of the things I’ve gone through in her work. I’m pleased that she’s doing well.

  2. Some time into the pandemic Lyle Lovett started doing these streamed events where he and another artist he liked/admired would talk, effectively interviewing each other, and each perform some songs. They were so great I am now primed for a Lyle Lovett helmed weekly talk show.

    I mean, I’ll consume whatever media LL produces but he really turned out to be a great interviewer.

    Anyway, he did one with Sarah McLachlan that was just fantastic. I don’t know if he intends to ever make them available elsewhere but you can watch part of it at https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=2817889685130782

  3. I’m enjoying this series so much. I was expecting “hey, here’s 30 songs I like” so the extended explanations have been really fun. Thank you for doing it.

    Is this something you’re actually writing a day at a time through the month, or has it been in progress for awhile?

  4. Again, another musician we love and have listened to for a Very long time now. IIRC Ms McLachlan helped get a boost in her early career by appearing on Mountain Stage, getting nationwide play on public radio. A wonderful voice doing great songs.

    Gosh, John, you have great taste in music, we like all the same wonderful women singers! Kidding, a little, but still, some truth in that.

  5. I look forward to seeing these posts all together in the next essay compilation. Even though it is only day 8, I suspect as a body they will tell a much bigger story than the individual posts added together.

    (Each of these would also make a great college application essay… Maybe I should make my rising senior read them…)

  6. Surprised that the “psychically linked” paragraph does not reference Possession (first single from Fumbling).

  7. Athena emerges, even back then :)

    What’s her opinion on the Who song anyway?

  8. Sarah kept me somewhat sane in the desert. I still play her music when I need peace.

  9. McLachlan has always been a pleasant surprise to me when her music comes on – my own tastes lean towards the heavier end of the spectrum, so I don’t generally put her stuff on intentionally, but her voice and songwriting has a distinct quality, and her talent is evident in her best material.

    Also, this has been a neat series so far, and for this entry in particular, I just want to say that I admire your ability to dig up and share your own writing from multiple decades ago and not cringe yourself into a fine dust reading the thoughts of your younger self. I always find revisiting my own older posts a uniquely mortifying experience.

  10. I’m wondering if you’re at all interested, as I am, in either classical music or jazz. No problem if you aren’t…I’m just curious.

    Dark secret from my past: I was once a roadie for David Cassidy. (But on my way to a gig working for Leonard Bernstein.)