“Building a Mystery”


If you listen to music on a computer, or iPod, or really just about any listening device made in the last decade or so, then you know the seductive wonder of the shuffle or random setting.  Apple even made it more interesting a few years ago with the introduction of Genius, a setting that chooses songs according to what you’ve been listening to or according to genre or mood or just about any other criteria (something I’m pretty sure my iPod did long before Genius ever came along).  It’s so much fun to see what the machine comes up with.  If you aren’t in the mood for the song, you just skip to the next one.

Of course, you’ve also probably figured out that there are a few songs you never, ever skip when they come on, for whatever reason.  I’ve started keeping track of these with a playlist on the computer; it’s surprisingly long.  Although I know that these songs really don’t come up all that often–most of them are in single digits for listens.  But there’s a couple of double digits, and this is one of them.  According to my computer, I’ve listened to “Building a Mystery” nineteen times (and about to be twenty).  That might not seem like too many, except that I’ve got nearly 5,000 tracks to choose from.  Why would I listen to one Sarah McLachlan song that much?

I don’t really have an answer.  I mean, obviously I think it’s a really good song.  The whole album, Surfacing, is pretty terrific.  But it was, frankly, overplayed on the radio when it was popular.  Not Chris Isaak “Wicked Game” overplayed, but it got pretty ubiquitous for a while there.  The lyrics, while pleasingly cryptic, aren’t really special (although she does drop the f-bomb, which works in the context).  The production and playing are okay, but, again, nothing special.  I do really love the minor chord it starts out on (minor chords rock).  And I found out one afternoon at a friend’s house that it’s a great song to swing along to (a child’s swing, get your mind out of the gutter).  But there’s nothing that makes it stand out.

Except for maybe the mood.  The opening sets it beautifully, descending into the dreaminess of the rest of the music nicely.  “You come out at night” adds to the, well, mysterious mood.  It’s hard to tell what emotions are being conveyed.  McLachlan’s lilting voice drifts from smirking to angry to sad to loving and back again, over and over.  Like a swing.  There’s no telling what’s going on between the characters in this song, whether it’s something supernatural happening or just a relationship cycling through ups and downs.  Whatever it is, it seems chaotic, disturbed: “You woke up screaming aloud, a prayer from your secret god.  You feed off our fears, and hold back your tears.  Give us a tantrum and a know-it-all grin, just when we need one when the evening’s thin.”  This is not a very stable person, “a beautiful, fucked up man.”  What’s happening?  I’m not sure it matters.  It’s about the mystery, not the solution.

That might be what I like most about this song, that I can’t quite pin it down, and, more importantly, that I don’t really want to.  I keep coming back because of the mystery that Sarah McLachlan builds so perfectly.

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