The problem with expectations is that they inevitably lead to disappointment. While that’s probably true with most of life, I find it especially true when dealing with either a book by a favored author or a new CD by a familiar performer.
Over the years, fairly or unfairly, the bar is set higher and higher for artists. Expecting them to always surpass their previous efforts to entertain and enthrall. When they produce a novel or CD that is, in your estimation, something that anybody could have done, goodif the work otherwise is perfectly good, it’s disappointing.
If that doesn’t sound like a particularly objective way of reviewing or critiquing a work, it’s the truth of the matter. No matter how much anyone may pretend to be objective as a critic, it’s impossible not to have expectations about a creative work.
What else are we to compare an artist’s output to if not their previous efforts? How else would you be able to tell if they’ve made progress, changed their style or attempted some radical shift? True, you can always compare them to others working in a similar style, but that becomes more of a case of competitive comparison than actual critiquing. Saying one artist is better than another doesn’t give much indication of whether an individual is utilizing his or her talents to the fullest.
That has got to be the longest introduction to a review I’ve ever written, but in the case of the latest CD from Sarah Harmer, I’m A Mountain, I thought some explanation was required. I’ve been in the fortunate position of living in Kingston, Ontario, almost since Sarah first started performing in local bars. Every time I have seen her play she has blown me away. (The version of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” she did with an early incarnation of her band Weeping Tile is still the best I’ve ever heard or seen)
Some years back, she put out an album called For Clem. It was a collection of older standards and traditional country tunes she and a couple of friends recorded on the back porch of her house. If you listen carefully, on some tracks you can hear crickets singing along. Perhaps because she recorded these songs as a heartfelt message of thanks to her father — or maybe because she was lucky enough to catch lighting in a bottle — there was something about this album that allowed it to break down the normal barrier standing between performer and audience. You could picture yourself pulling up a chair on that porch and being welcome to sit and tap your foot along to the music. Sarah and friends wove a spell of intimacy that was as wonderful as it is rare to find in today’s popular music.
Her albums have always had a level of intimacy that I have found lacking with other performers. There is always the feeling that she is singing specifically for you. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of production or the honesty of her lyrics that creates that feeling, I’m not sure, until now I’ve never stopped to analyze it carefully.
The problem I have with I’m A Mountain is that it sounds like any one of the oh-so-serious female singer-songwriters out there could have written it: Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Tori or whomever. These artists come from a long tradition of soulless, sentimental pabulum producers including Janis Ian, Phoebe Snow, and Carly Simon.
There has always been a fine line in acoustic, singer-songwriter music that separates genuine emotion and self-indulgent navel-gazing. In the past few years, a new breed of female songwriter has appeared who talks about serious issues. Perhaps because I’m not a 20-year-old middle-class white woman, the songs have no meaning to me, but to these ears, all their music sounds alike and communicates the satravels the same intellectual terrain.
Sarah Harmer’s music has never fallen into that category by any stretch of the imagination. It’s too real and too diverse in its take on life. Even her weakest efforts to date have shown far too much willingness to experiment with style and form for her to be classed in that category. But I’m A Mountain skirts around the edges of Lilith Fair territory. While songs like “Luther’s Got The Blues” and “I Am Aglow” are musically and lyrically fresh and merit attention, none of the other songs are very captivating.
Technically, her voice is as wonderful as ever and the songs are all well-crafted, but they lack the heartfeltness that bridges the gap between performer and listener. I felt no reason to be interested in what she was singing about.
Sarah Harmer is still one of my favorite singer–songwriters, and I will continue to look forward to her new albums. Hopefully I’m A Mountain is nothing more than an aberration in the otherwise wonderful catalogue of music she has produced. From another performer, this might have been an acceptable album, but she is better than this, so I was disappointed.