Wednesday, April 15, 2015

39: Angel - Sarah McLachlan

If you've never read what this song is about, you might be surprised. According to Wikipedia (so it must be true, right?) it's about musicians, in particular the touring keyboard player for the Smashing Pumpkins, overdosing on drugs. No, really. And I read that and I think "Hm, ok, I can see that I suppose" but next time I hear it I'm not going to be thinking about that. And that's the sign of a good song I suppose - it is strong enough to carry way beyond what the original meaning was for the writer, and it belongs to the world instead. (Except for copyright purposes where the song remains with Sarah McLachlan).

So why is it in the top forty at forty? As with 'Bad Day', the lyrics aren't always entirely audible but in this case it's partly because the voice singing them is sufficiently amazing on its own that you don't actually listen to the words she's singing. The chord sequence (yes I play the acoustic guitar so everything is chords to me) lead to some lovely, slightly unusual harmonies - the major key is C# and the chorus slips from some C# variants for the first line ("In the arms of the angel") into F-minor for the second ("fly away from here") which is not that unusual, but does lead to a wonderful harmony note for that phrase (C). Now I know that is really just a boring descending bassline (C# to C) although a high C sounds better, but here's the thing: McLachlan never sings it. There's no harmony vocal on the entire track.

And the only reason I know that is because I just listened to the whole thing and realised that over the years I must have - because of the chord sequence and her unique voice - heard these harmonies in my head that were never recorded. It's a simple song - just five or possibly six chords for the whole thing (if you include the B-major she introduces towards the end of the final chorus) - and one voice, one piano and a few background effects, but the whole thing is magical and makes you feel like you're dreaming, hearing things that simply aren't there.

Final thought: "Come Away With Me" by Norah Jones also made the long-list for the top forty, same vibe but a bit more jazz-lounge than "Angel", but then I realized it just didn't have the vocal strength and the mysterious secret harmonies that don't exist, and Norah got cut. Had anyone else sung "Angel", Norah Jones might have been in there. It's one song for which you'll never hear a good cover version.

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