Give your best, then surrender / Song Analysis #66: Sarah McLachlan – Sweet Surrender

The song I’m going to be writing about today is one that has been stuck in my consciousness for over half of my life.  I’ve thought about it a lot and have wanted to write about it here on Music in Notes for a long time.  I previously felt blocked with it the explanation for the song by the songwriter herself left me disappointed, as I had imagined it had far more evocative source material.  Some uncomfortable thoughts have come up for me in the last few days, bringing the song back into focus for me, so it seems the right time to share this.  Interestingly, I see on YouTube that the song has also found new fans during this pandemic, due to its underlying message.

The way that I have been doing these lyric interpretations this summer has been different than in the past.  Instead of setting myself a deadline and going with the first song that comes into my head and sounds like a good idea, I am now actively meditating on what thoughts about my life cross my ever-expanding mind and seeing what songs connect with those thoughts.  After my father died, a series of crises caused me to go into a spiritual direction, one that moved along at a leisurely pace.  That is, until last autumn, when I was involved in a traumatic accident, after which I noticed things started to speed up rapidly.  But for now, let’s go on to the lyrics and the analysis…

Title: ‘Sweet Surrender’
Where to find it: ‘Surfacing’ and ‘Sweet Surrender’ single (1997, Arista)
Performed by: Sarah McLachlan
Words: Sarah McLachlan

It doesn’t mean much
It doesn’t mean anything at all
The life I’ve left behind me
Is a cold room

Verse 1
I’ve crossed the last line
From where I can’t return
Where every step I took in faith betrayed me
And led me from my home

Sweet surrender
Is all that I have to give

Verse 2
Take me in
No questions asked
You strip away the ugliness
That surrounds me
(Who are you?)

Verse 3
Are you an angel?
Am I already that gone?
I only hope that I won’t disappoint you
When I’m down here on my knees
(Who are you?)

Chorus X 2
Sweet surrender
Is all that I have to give
(who are you?)

Sweet surrender
Is all that I have to give

And I don’t understand
How the touch of your hand
I would be the one to fall
I miss the little things
I miss everything about you

Intro repeated (stripped back)
Doesn’t mean much
It doesn’t mean anything at all
The life I left behind me
Is a cold room
(who are you?)

Chorus X 2
Sweet surrender
Is all that I have to give
(Who are you?)

Sweet surrender
Is all that I have to give

I would have known about Sarah McLachlan just by listening to top 40 radio in 1997.  However, it seems her songs were constantly being thrown in my face by a childhood friend who went to college with me and who was, in my opinion, obsessed with the songwriter.  I eventually bought her album ‘Surfacing’ not because of my friend, but for my attachment to its second single, ‘Sweet Surrender’, one of my favorite songs of all time.

Sarah McLachlan herself has said that the inspiration to ‘Sweet Surrender’ was the love story in the film Leaving Las Vegas.  I’ve never seen the film (the synopsis alone is triggering to this empath’s heart) and all you need to know right now is that the story is about two lost souls who find unexpected solace in each other.  In this Rolling Stone article from last year, McLachlan also says the song was also drawn from “one hideous breakup”, which is at least more interesting and more personal than “I took it from a movie I watched.”

When I first heard the song on the radio in 1997, as you do with music when you’re young and impressionable, I took the song very personally, as if I was the female character in it, dramatically crying over a lost love.  Sonically, it begins with an interesting guitar sound put through some kind of effects, resulting in what I’d describe as an otherworldly alarm.  It definitely ranks up there as best song starts, along with the feedback that begins the Beatles’ ‘I Feel Fine’.  The alarm sound stretches around the bends as the song continues.

The first two lines of the song “It doesn’t mean much / it doesn’t mean anything at all” fit my mood at the time, as a freshman in college.  I didn’t know what I was doing or how I should be feeling about my young life.  I was moving forward with my education but even that movement was on autopilot, as I wondered when I allowed my mind to wander if I was making a big mistake, but I didn’t see any other way out but through.

The intro and verse 1 of the sign speak of a point of no return that has been passed.  The female protagonist has taken a leap of faith, and there is no turning back now.  The words “The life I’ve left behind me / Is a cold room” makes you feel like it’s not a place that she would want to return to, even if she had the chance.  She also shares with us the hardship of walking away from everything she once knew, including the place she considered her home: “Where every step I took in faith betrayed me”.  Human beings do not like change.  It is hard as hell to walk away from what is known and comfortable, even if you know intellectually that staying in that same place and with the same people is toxic.

The song’s chorus is simple: “Sweet surrender / Is all I have to give.”  It’s a suggestion that the woman has reached the end of her rope, or at least is stuck at a crossroads where there is literally nothing else she can do but completely give in and surrender.  The simplicity allows for the song to be interpreted any number of ways, ranging from the completely secular to varying degrees of the spiritual and religious.

In verse 2, she is given sanctuary during this tough time in her life, but it is unclear by whom.  If you interpret this song as being without God’s or divine intervention, then the source of the song being from the Leaving Las Vegas storyline fits.  The film’s two lead characters begin as unsympathetic antiheroes: one is a drunk who wants to drink himself to death, and the other is a prostitute.  They become friends and eventually lovers despite their shortcomings, for lack of a better description.  “You strip away the ugliness / That surrounds me” sounds like all the self-doubt and low self-esteem and self-worth issues have been wiped away by a new partner and through unconditional love.  To make this interpretation easier for me, from this point forward, I’m going to assume the angel is male.

In verse 3, the woman wonders aloud if this man who came to her aid, “Are you an angel? / Am I already that gone?”  This lends well to the interpretations involving divine intervention, though I wish to point out that we could be dealing with an earth angel, a human being with angelic, caring qualities.  Something really bad has happened to this woman.  Has she lost her life?  Or has she lost her way in life?  McLachlan sings, “I only hope that I won’t disappoint you,” indicating shame and remorse for her past actions.  She’s “down here on my knees,” putting herself in a vulnerable position.  Whether she’s willing to make herself vulnerable because she feels safe with this person or because she doesn’t feel she has any choice is debatable.  This is an intriguing ambiguity, a potential mixed message of pain vs. sexual ecstasy in the chorus of the Morrissey song ‘Jack the Ripper’ (see item #5 on this list by the Guardian).

In the bridge, it seems to me that the angel (whether divine or human) providing the woman her much needed sanctuary when she needed it has somehow left her.  She doesn’t understand how this all happened: “And I don’t understand / How the touch of your hand / I would be the one to fall / I miss the little things / I miss everything about you.”  I remember when I heard this song in 1997, wondering if it was the angel leaving her that caused her to lose all faith in life.  If yes, then the song was purposely written out of order with respect to the order of events, providing an achingly, melancholily gorgeous loop of what has transpired.  Providing the flashback in verse 2, where we learn of the unconditional love, makes sense to me because what it does is make the listener understand that the woman loved and lost and is now heartbroken.

The song ends with a plaintive refrain of the chorus again, that there is no resolution for this woman.  Yet.  Does her sweet surrender mean she will be reunited with her angel, that she will feel his beautiful unconditional love once again?  Or is she forever damned to a life without him?  What I would hope for our protagonist and anyone else struggling during the pandemic is this: give your best, because that’s all you can do and all that you can control.  Do that, surrender, and allow the divine to handle the rest.

1 thought on “Give your best, then surrender / Song Analysis #66: Sarah McLachlan – Sweet Surrender

  1. Love your insights! This song is quite fitting for these difficult times…sometimes we just have to surrender and accept. – another Mary L 😉

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