It is apparent that female music in Canada is a growing industry, and plays a very controversial role in Canadian society. Canada is a land of many ethnic backgrounds and an extremely diverse culture, one of the best ways to express culture is through music. Sarah McLachlan has enjoyed worldwide success with the album Surfacing, and more recently Mirrorball. The album titled Surfacing was released in 1997 and features a song called Building a Mystery. Building a Mystery clearly exemplifies the incorporation of many important musical elements to create a widely accepted song. In the application of a few distinct components, the listener can gain a broader understanding of Building a Mystery. The following essay will explore the use of structure, lyrics, instrumentation and the vocal quality of Sara McLachlan’s Building a Mystery.
Female rock singers made a deep impact as they definitively entered the rock scene in the nineties and into the millenium as independent singer-songwriters. Many of their songs are built around repetitive cadences like this one. At first glance these songs seem rather simple and repetitive. Of course repetition is an important element of rock music. It cannot be denied that repetition gives rock songs much of their compelling character. However, as we have discussed in lecture, a lot of variation can be made with the help of just a few chords. Being not so repetitive after all, Building a Mystery gives good proof of that.
There is a lot going on within the confined space of this song. The song starts with a short intro, followed by a first verse and next a short bridge and a break. Then we hear the second verse coupled to a long bridge, followed by the refrain. Next there’s a third verse, again coupled to a long bridge and the refrain. A guitar solo, twice the refrain and an out to finish the track. The verses, the break and the refrains are all built upon an identical harmonic structure. So the main pattern of the song is repeated at least seven times.
The lyrics in Building a Mystery are very controversial by nature and lead into deep insight through the use of metaphors. The song features three verses and a chorus, which is repeated many times throughout. McLachlan seems to use short insightful phrases to allow the listener to come to their own conclusions as to what she is illustrating. In the lyrics a woman voices her complaints about her lover. The text not only expresses a complaint. However, at the same time it is an analysis of the reason why she finds herself attracted to him. She describes him as a man who is hiding his inner self behind a careful constructed image, letting nobody look at his emotions deep down inside. The short bridge is formulated as some sort of conclusion following upon the description. All this man is doing, is aimed at the same thing: Building a Mystery. The way it is sung, makes it sound like a conclusion too. McLachlan’s lover is constructing his identity to give an impression of mysteriousness to the outside world. This line is followed by a break, which takes us back to the now familiar chord pattern. A definite conclusion is not voiced, but keeps hanging in the air.
For obvious reasons, the instrumentation within a musical work is very important. This composition includes a wide variety of musical instruments however, the emphasis is placed on McLachlan’s voice. The bass, drums, background vocals, electric and acoustic guitars all work towards providing outstanding support for McLachlan’s voice. The use of the backups and the arrangement of the supporting instruments plays an integral role in the interpretation of this piece. The instrumental section prior to the entrance of McLachlan’s voice allows the listener to gain a strong sense of rhythm and melody. The constant theme involving the acoustic and electric guitars maintains the melody and continues through the extent of the piece. The primary guitar does this by playing one rhythm meanwhile the secondary guitar enters and displays the second element of the melody. Following this, the bass is established to give a beat that also is maintained throughout the song. Although the supporting instrumentation in this piece is not overwhelming, it creates a steady flow and allows McLachlan to tell her story without being interupted.
An important element in the transmission of any song is vocal quality. This component focuses of what the vocalist does in order to get their message across and to correctly transmit their lyrics. Vocal Quality considers the tone of voice used and any ornamentation that could be used to separate the songs identity. Building a Mystery makes use of a very typical vocal quality that is commonly seen in popular music. Within this song there is evidence of backup vocals that compliment McLachlan’s heavenly voice. The quality of her voice changes throughout the piece, seemingly gaining aggression and frustration. At the beginning of the song, McLachlan appears to be very calm and content and as the piece carries on she gradually conveys a more disrupted individual through the use of a more dissonant tone. The quality of her voice throughout is very clear and emotionally attached. McLachlan uses word painting to vividly depict her feelings and to bring reality to her text. As well, her pronunciation of the lyrics are extremely clear allowing the listener to identify with exactly what she is trying to say. This vocal characteristic is a theme throughout the entire Surfacing album, where Building a Mystery is found. After listening to many of McLachlans songs, it is safe to say that she tends to sing very clearly in all of her music.
The Piece Building a Mystery combines complexity and its controversial nature to add to its potential of multiple interpretations. Many listeners could interpret this song differently however, after listening to the entire album that many characteristics conveyed in the song mentioned are very similar to other McLachlan compilations. Building a Mystery raises a number of questions and issues as it forces the listener to create questions prior to finding answers. This musical selection promotes great deal of thought and also avails itself to a number of solutions surrounding its meaning. Through the completion of this exercise I have been able to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for musical analysis and song interpretation.
Comment: I find it humorous all the comparisons of this song to other popular “girl” songs from singers like Meridith Brooks and Alanis Morriset. I don’t know who wrote this song…perhaps she did. Some reviews mention the “goth-lite themes of Anne Rice”. To me, it’s much stranger than this. To me, this is a song about a person who is deeply involved in some Mystery religion (aka initiatory-style system). There are several lines that lead me to believe this. The first would be about the “suicide poem”. This could be a reference to initiatory pledges in various Mystery cults (they are considered cults because they are usually esoteric branches off a main religion). The mentioning of a “cross from a faith that died before Jesus came” might refer to something like an ankh. Of course, there is the often states “your building a mystery”.
Voodoo dolls are common to Western Magick as well, being used in many traditions for “transference” purposes. They are commonly referred to as sachets. Wearing sandals is a common item for many initiations, including groups like the Golden Dawn. In the snow would probably indicate something being done outside where he had to wear sandals. Living in a church would probably be from the fact his is a priest in some type of group and lives on the grounds. Searching for ghosts could mean many things, from practicing necromancy or divination to just trying to excise the church.
I feel the holding on and holding it in refers to the fact that it is indeed a Mystery cult, and can only be given to properly indoctrinated initiates. This also goes with the line “choosing so carefully”. Having a “secret god” also indicates he is privy to an unknown God (or side of God). It obliviously isn’t always pleasant either, seeing as he to “hold back your tears”. Perhaps some painful initiation, or painful rituals. I think the tantrum may refer to a ritualistic dance, “passion play” or something of the type.
The final verse talks about him being beautiful, which is a requirement for Mystery cults of such gods as Adonis. I’m not sure about the “razor wire shrine”. Is it a shrine to razor wire? Is the shrine surrounded by razor wire? Or is it metaphorical? I go with the last…voting with it is metaphorical so no one can enter it. There is a Talmudic saying about how the Talmud puts a fence around the Torah, defining the generalized laws into exact interpretations. Perhaps he puts up some type of defence against the uninitiated.
Of course, she could mean none of this at all. She might be singing about some love story, not realizing how an occult student would interpret her song. I suppose I could look into her other songs and see if there is anything there like this in them. A final thought is that whoever wrote it might be under some type of semi-divine guidance and not realize what they are writing…akin to the Bible Code (but nothing nearly as elaborate or earth-moving). Rating: 10