Aural Impressions: Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest

I’ve been waiting for this album for a long time– ever since I binged on Once Upon Another Time last summer, but the wait became much more intense when I saw Sara perform solo in all her glory in May.  The apparent new musical direction in her EP combined with several months of life-altering personal experiences she’s spoken about extensively in interviews and on-stage had severely elevated my hopes for The Blessed Unrest.  I listened through the first album stream on iTunes ten days ago and have gone back again and again in the time since.  For the first time in awhile on Tuesday, I went out and bought the physical album on release day.  If you know me, that’s a pretty strong endorsement right there.  Now, to break down the album track-by-track:

  1. Brave: The album’s lead single, easily the poppiest of the bunch.  Upon first hearing the song back in May, I was a little disappointed in that the musical style was a reversion to a more mainstream sound in opposition to the direction Sara seemed to be heading after Once Upon Another Time.  In the months since and after many listens (and a lovely live performance), it has grown on me.  It’s incredibly percussive, with what sounds like both programmed and live drums.  The piano motif is simple and for a song that sounds quite big, the rest of the instrumentation is rather sparse.  Inspired by a friend’s experience with coming out, the lyrical theme of being brave, not being afraid to express yourself, is applicable to anyone.  I feel like I’m suddenly in a time in my life where I need to be adventurous and unafraid in the face of uncertainty.  In the weeks and months to come, I have no doubt this song will be in my head.
  2. Chasing the Sun:  Immediately one of my favorites from the album.  I cannot get enough of the chorus; the melody, the lyrics, the chord progression, and vocal performance all work together fantastically.  It’s both uplifting and melancholic simultaneously, a common theme throughout the rest of the album.  It’s also the first of several tracks referencing Sara’s move to New York City in January.  The electronic percussion is here along with another simple piano motif, though both are toned down from the poppiness of Brave.  I can see this as a great song to run to.
  3. Hercules:  It begins with staccato fifths on the piano, reminiscent of Tori Amos.  The chord progression is unsettling and foreboding, which for some reason is incredibly appealing to me.  That and the fact that the first verse ends on the piano with an open tritone.  How many “pop” artists would even consider doing that?  The chorus brings in an upbeat rhythm, while the lyrics counter with a cry for help along with some lovely backing vocals and strings.  I feel the start of the bridge is a little weak, but the rest of it is so strong I don’t mind it.  As a whole, one of the best of the album.
  4. Manhattan:  Just Sara and a piano.  It’s a sad song about the end of a relationship, but it’s surprisingly hopeful, especially in the bridge.  The jazzy piano along horn arrangement that comes and goes foment a picture of a rainy night walk in the city.  The vocals and lyrics are outstanding; few can channel as much emotion by themselves as she can.  I can see myself bawling if it’s played at the wrong (right?) time.  Powerful stuff.
  5. Satellite Call:  Another downbeat song with big chords, a la City or Hold My Heart from her previous two albums.  The beginning reminds me again of Tori Amos, played slowly and lightly.  Massive reverb surrounds the vocals, giving them an ethereal texture as if they’re sung on a cool breeze.  Subtle electric guitars and electronic effects gel the cosmic theme, all together conveying a feeling of isolation, furthered by the lyrical theme of a lonely satellite and its distant admirer on the surface.
  6. Little Black Dress:  Wedged between two spacey songs is an upbeat number about simply shutting out everything, putting on a song, dancing and not having a care in the world.  Brass punctuates the verses and chorus while backing vocals from Sara’s sister Stacey drive through the end of the song.  It seems a lot shorter than it is, but it’s also a bit repetitive.  While enjoyable and incredibly catchy, it’s probably one of the weaker pieces of the album.
  7. Cassiopeia:  Returning to the cosmic theme of Satellite Call, this one features synth strings, odd effects, a massive chorus with overlaid harmonies, and lyrics about the love, angst and loneliness that anthropomorphic stars feel out there in space.  It’s one of the bigger departures in style on the album and I love it.  Any song that sings of interstellar collisions, supernovae, constellations, and stardust is an instant favorite.
  8. 1000 Times:  Another downbeat major key ballad with striking minor chords interspersed, it’s just a solid simple song.  The falsetto vocals in the chorus are heavily reminiscent of Chantal Kreviazuk, and having been a fan of her for many years, they wax nostalgic.  It modulates up a fifth after the bridge and the motif changes to end in a minor chord, a touch I actually really love.  It adds some kind of feeling I can’t quite put my finger on.
  9. I Choose You:  It’s a cute love song, complete with light percussion, pizzicato strings and hand claps.  I don’t have too much to add, other than it might fit well in a movie.  I can definitely see it playing over end credits.
  10. Eden:  This begins the first of the strong three closing tracks.  Eden is unlike anything in Sara’s catalog.  It features tight vocal harmonies, not unlike Imogen Heap, driven by an electronic beat.  It’s immediately catchy and pulls into a chorus that adds an antiquated sounding synth and acoustic percussion.  The second verse brings these elements together along with a sharp bass piano riff.  It’s just 80s enough to get stuck in your head for hours, but feels incredibly fresh on an album that contains nothing else even a little bit like it.  I would absolutely love to hear an A cappella arrangement of Eden.  Somebody get on that.
  11. Islands:  Far and away my favorite from The Blessed Unrest.  It’s Sara and a piano again, but this time there are subtle pads above and bass beneath, building an atmosphere that expands nicely and takes over as the song progresses.  Every time the bass comes in to support the piano chords, both at the end of the verses and in the chorus, the hairs on my neck involuntarily stand at attention.  The second chorus grows, adding more vocal harmonies to the already lush atmosphere.  It reaches an incredible climax and fades shortly after with quiet vocals and piano.  Islands is a welcome addition to my pantheon of favorite songs.
  12. December:  I first heard this song performed live and solo, so the album version, complete with drums and guitars, caught me a little off-guard.  It doesn’t give me the same immediate contemplative and melancholic feeling as it did in May, but everything’s still there in the lyrics.  The piano chords are just as fantastic as I remember, and for sure I’ll be looking for a solo version.  It’s a solid album closer, and the full instrumentation is put to good use, especially in the section following the bridge.  It’s reflective, but optimistic and I like that at the end of an album.

Overall, it’s not as big of a departure as I expected, but there are definitely parts that are both unprecedented and brilliant.  Musically, Sara’s vocals shine as usual.  The piano, in the less pop-oriented songs, is often slow and simple, but the progressions are musically complex and well composed.  It’s more mature than Little Voice and less grandiose than Kaleidoscope Heart; it’s the sound of someone who had a comfortable, safe life, who one day decided to leave it behind and bravely test the uncharted waters of a new city on the other side of the country.  A lot of it is melancholic and may sound depressing to some, but it’s also cathartic and optimistic.  I can relate to far more on this album than I honestly really want to, and it’s always nice to know I’m not alone in my experiences.  I’m incredibly satisfied with The Blessed Unrest; I look forward to listening to it an awful lot in the near future.  Perhaps on a road trip to places unknown?


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