Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sarah McLachlan, "Angel" (1998)

Nov. 14, 1998, #4

It's true I have never been much of one for opiates—the War on Drugs propaganda of a lifetime worked all too well and I diligently avoided them. That's surely to the good, though it pains me some to learn, all this time later, how much relatively safer they are than stimulants such as amphetamine and cocaine varieties (not to mention legal alcohol). As usual, it's the laws causing most of the harm. The romance of opiates returned briefly in the '90s—McLachlan was specifically moved to write this by the death of Smashing Pumpkins' keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin. Other specters hang over it too, of course. That romance was itself surely less to the good. But among other things it did produce this tender and amazing song, routinely capable of filling me to overflowing with a delicious sadness and no taint of self-pity. It's the human condition—solace washed up depressed in a dark cold hotel room, under a naked bulb—made into music pure. The song was later (and unfortunately) used as the theme for an in-your-face campaign against animal abuse, and has been interpreted more benignly as being about everything from disappointment to God. Fair enough. You can't blame anyone who can't stand it for the associations (and/or ubiquity). If that weren't enough, its piano chords have also become a cliché of poignant scenes in TV and movies. But I think it transcends all these problems and makes them puny. For me, it finds its greatest power in the simple expedient of kindness, toward someone with a hard life, who seeks to blot away the inescapable pains, even if fleetingly. The song does not judge and thus feels like one of the kindest acts ever committed. It's pure love, "this glorious sadness that brings me to my knees."

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