Tue, Nov 11, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Back in the limelight after marriage and motherhood

By Lola Ogunnaike  /  NY Times Service

Reveling in a peaceful state of utter anonymity, the singer Sarah McLachlan strolled about New York's Central Park one recent afternoon, unencumbered by fans begging for autographs or pesky paparazzi snapping photos.

"I've been away for a number of years, so no one recognizes me," McLachlan observed.

The remark might have caused another celebrity to blanch, but McLachlan was beaming. "I'm really enjoying this because in a week I probably won't be able to sit here and not get noticed."

Not long ago McLachlan, 35, was regarded as one of the most important women in rock. The Lilith Fair, the all-female concert series that she began in the late 1990s, not only transformed her into a bona fide star but cast her as the new face of modern feminism.

It's been six years since her last studio album (an eternity in the music industry), but McLachlan has finally returned with one, Afterglow, a collection of moody, low-key songs that, despite the time lag, seamlessly picks up where McLachlan left off with her multiplatinum Surfacing in 1997. Though much in her personal life changed while she was away from the spotlight -- she married, lost her mother and became a mother herself -- her style remains decidedly the same: atmospheric folk-pop that invites listeners to sway, not stomp.

As she has before, McLachlan teams with the producer Pierre Marchand. And again, Afterglow finds her grappling with the complexities of life and relationships. While some critics have accused her of not charting new territory, her fans will delight in quintessential McLachlan songs like Stupid" about a romance gone painfully awry ("Love has made me a fool, set me on fire and watched as I floundered"), and Fallen, which showcases McLachlan's crisp, ethereal vocals. With lines like "visions clash, planes crash, still there's talk of saving souls," the song World on Fire is an allusion to 9/11.

To some the title Afterglow may conjure up images of postcoital bliss, but the word possesses a darker, more somber meaning for McLachlan.

"The first thing that comes to mind is this beautiful warm light," she said, "but what I think of is the light after a nuclear holocaust."

Not one of the 10 songs on Afterglow addresses the birth of her daughter, India, in 2002, or the death of her mother four months earlier. She is not far enough removed from those events to mine them creatively, she said, adding, "It takes years for those types of things to sink in."

"Even today," she said, "I have moments when I think, I should call my mother. And then I remember she's gone." But the melancholy that pervades her new album does not belong to her, the relentlessly upbeat McLachlan insisted. Rather she drew from the experiences of her friends, she said. But she quickly added: "It's not like I've always been in this happy place. The well is deep. There are lots of past traumas that I can call on."

Born and reared in Nova Scotia, McLachlan said her parents were a scientist and homemaker. "They were children of the Depression and we lived very frugally," McLachlan, the youngest of three, explained. "But there was always money for private art lessons." She was 19 when she landed her first record deal. McLachlan had a slow rise to prominence; not until her 1994 album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, did broad audiences begin to take notice.

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