2010 has proved to be an uncharacteristically productive year for Sarah McLachlan. Not only has this summer seen the unexpected revival of Lilith Fair, the female-artist-only concert tour that she founded to great success in the late 1990s, but McLachlan has finally released a new studio album, her first collection of all-new material since 2003’s Afterglow. That’s not to say that the Canadian singer/songwriter has been entirely absent from the music scene over the last seven years: in fact, she’s put out a steady stream of compilations and reissues in the meantime, plus the Christmas album Wintersong (2006) and last year’s enjoyable, well-sequenced Best Of collection, Closer. Among McLachlan’s fans, hopes have been fairly high for Laws of Illusion, which charts the emotional fall-out of the singer’s divorce from drummer Ashwin Sood. The truth is, though, that while the new album is a respectable, proficient offering, it doesn’t, as might have been expected, find McLachlan venturing into new sonic territory. Rather, it’s a work that seems content to coast, to rake over some familiar ground.
It’s a critical commonplace to describe the trajectory of McLachlan’s career as one of ever-encroaching blandness, and that’s not a stance that Laws of Illusion does much to refute. The line between hauntingly beautiful and simply soporific that her music has often walked has rarely seemed so fine. She’s in good voice throughout the album, but the prevailing mood suggests a collaboration between Dido and Enya. That being said, there are some memorable moments. The album opens in fine style with “Awakenings,” a track whose shifting rhythms and dramatic electric guitar flourishes promise much. “Illusions of Bliss” slides elegantly into the kind of slinky, catchy chorus of which McLachlan is a proven master. “Forgiveness,” with delicate piano and guitar building to a swooping bridge, is poised and graceful, while the spare “Rivers of Love” sustains a jazzy, late-night ambience. The album’s most spiritual, redemptive moment is a cover of Susan Enan’s “Bring on the Wonder,” rendered here as a stirring incantation.
Elsewhere, though, Pierre Marchand’s glossy, polished production robs some of Laws of Illusion’s songs of personality and drive. The percussive jauntiness of “Loving You Is Easy” seems out of place, while “Don’t Give Up On Us” and “U Want Me 2” (both featured on Closer) still fail to stir much interest in this context. At times, there’s the sense that McLachlan and her musicians are simply going through the motions; it’s particularly frustrating that crack drummer Matt Chamberlain (replacing Sood) is never really let off the leash. The album tends to touch on difficult emotions without ever fully embodying them. Anger, regret and self-abasement have rarely sounded so decorous; as a break-up album, Blood on the Tracks (1975) or Boys For Pele (1996) this ain’t.
It should be noted that, song for song, Laws of Illusion is no duller than, say, the last Antony and the Johnsons album. But it suffers from a similar problem: it’s a little too exquisite for its own good. In an era of crude overstatement, the restraint and tastefulness of McLachlan’s approach undoubtedly has its appeal. She’s the kind of artist that a reviewer feels kindly disposed towards and Laws of Illusion is a classy, competent piece of work. But some further forays outside the comfort zone wouldn’t go amiss.