While its comparably mainstream follow-up, the multi-platinum Surfacing, helped Sarah McLachlan become a household name in the U.S., 1994’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy announced the singer’s arrival outside of her native Canada. Hers was a slow-burning success story and her third album’s lead single, “Possession,” was no exception. The single took its time fluttering around the bottom regions of the pop charts, but it ultimately became one of the artist’s staples. The song is an intensely dark account of a man (or woman) who becomes obsessed with a pop singer and ultimately finds satiation in dreams: “Nothing stands between us here/And I won’t be denied.”
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy finds McLachlan assuming the perspective of several other characters across its 12 tracks. “Hold On,” a song McLachlan was inspired to write after seeing the AIDS documentary A Promise Kept, is a woman’s impassioned plea for God to keep her dying lover safe (both in life and death). “What is it in me that refuses to believe this isn’t easier than the real thing?” she asks, her voice breaking in all the right places.
Despite the semi-fictitious aspects of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, the album is an irrefutably personal one. There are Bible-worthy allusions to forbidden love, temptation, sin, and shame throughout tracks like the folky “Good Enough” and the propulsive “Wait.” The foreboding “Ice” finds McLachlan imploring: “You enter into me a lie upon your lips/Offer what you can, I’ll take all that I can get.” (It’s a lyric you won’t find her singing in her post-Lilith Fair days.) The track begins with an anxious acoustic guitar riff, a serpentine saxophone winding its way in between the beats of a pulsing drum machine and menacing kick-drum.
Longtime producer Pierre Marchand expertly stacks McLachlan’s sticky-sweet vocal harmonies one on top of the other; the most exquisite examples of this can be found on the desperate “Elsewhere,” in which the brittle percussion chips away at the “heaven” she claims to have found, the stunning “Fear,” and “Plenty,” where Marchand’s “found sounds” mingle with McLachlan’s hesitant vocal overdubs. So much of the album is about restraint, so that by the time she (and we, vicariously) reach the album’s title track she truly is on her way towards ecstasy. The trouble with the album’s title, however, is that she never fumbles…not even once.