Hallelujah, she’s back! After a nearly four year hiatus; six if you count non-Broadway albums, Sara Bareilles has released another album of original studio material entitled Amidst the Chaos. Since the fall, she’d been releasing occasional singles for the record, yet I forced myself to avoid listening to them until the album was released. I’m not sure why.
Now, something incredible happened between then and now — Sara announced a sudden four-city tour, which included a stop in San Francisco. The tour was announced just two days before tickets went on sale, and the shows were to take place starting only a week after that. I’ve always grappled with the thought that seeing Sara again would never live up to the magic that was her solo tour, but good grief, she’s incredible no matter what. On that Friday, I lurked on the ticket site for hours, sniping a pair the moment they went on sale. Click, boom, done. The tour sold out in seconds. The day of the show, I arrived at the venue three hours early — there was already a line at least 20 people deep at the door. Securing a spot off to the edge of the stage in front, we stood for another two hours before it even began. My vantage point allowed me a view of the set list on the floor; I didn’t recognize most of the song titled. That is, she was going to play this whole album.
It was awesome. She was flanked by a five person band — two guitarists, an upright bass, a minimal drum set, and a keyboardist, with backup vocals spread amongst the group. It was not what I was expecting — more jazz and soul than pop and rock, but wonderful nonetheless.
I didn’t plan it this way, yet I’m thankful I waited to listen to these songs. They’re automatically tied to the memory of this incredible, hilarious, moving show. The big question that remains is: does the studio album live up to the hype generated by her show? Spoilers — my first impression is, not quite — but, there’s definitely room to grow into it. It was produced by T Bone Burnett, who injects a healthy dose of Americana and organic acoustics into the whole production, as well as a perspective heretofore unseen within her catalog. Intrigued? Let’s go through these songs one after another, shall we?
- Fire: Oh, is it great to hear her voice on record again! Especially an a Capella harmony featuring two multi-tracked Saras. Suddenly, things take a turn in a new direction: jangly acoustic guitar and/or mandolin strumming is the only accompaniment, joined later by only a light galloping, dance-able rhythm. The lush, yet simple instrumentation allows the layers of Sara’s vocals to shine, especially in a restrained, catchy chorus. My favorite bit is the short sequence of descending, intertwined harmonies concluding the choruses with an elongated “Fire”, punctuated by a short refrain. While this opener has a totally different feel than her past albums, there’s something extremely familiar about it — probably the harmonizing, which is ubiquitous throughout this song and draws upon her deep history in a Capella music. A curious choice for an opener, but I like it!
- No Such Thing: “I wrote that song about the Obamas. I’m not even joking.” Heavy bass contrasts sharply with extremely high piano arpeggios and harps. The acoustic feel continues; drums are played with brushes, the bass is an upright, and moody strings round out another vibrant, yet chill musical environment. It’s so slow, almost tense. A longing wail fills the pre-chorus, while the aria within quickly showcases Sara’s vocal range and precision; later, the bridge adds an extended falsetto. Aside from some overdubbed strings, instrumentation remains minimal throughout.
- Armor: Here’s the kick-ass song the first two were warming us up for. “Armor” is driven by a groovy, bassy piano lick you can’t help but nod along to. Feminist lyrics, dripping with sarcasm and biting commentary are a welcome sound — it feels like it’s been since Little Voice that we’ve had such pointed and aggressive, but simultaneously joyous and uplifting, lyrics from Sara. Of course, it’s been a hell of a three years since the last album and this feels like a song we need right now. The choruses are instant earworms, something I’ll surely wake up with in my head on a daily basis over the next month or so. I’d consider it a companion to “Brave.” A sister song, if you will. This was an excellent choice for lead single.
- If I Can’t Have You: Funky! There’s a lot of soul influence in this song — groovy electric guitar, a shuffling drum beat, and the ever-present upright bass. A blast of backing “oohs” in the later verses and choruses shifts the mood in a gospel-y direction. It’s not Sara doing the harmonies either; these outside voices add a dimension and texture to supplement Sara’s consistently smooth vocals. And of course there’s a classic modulation after the bridge, furthering the push into Sara’s upper range. She’s sounding better than ever.
- Eyes on You: An enveloping muted guitar pushes us forward, while the vocals start and stop, portraying vignettes of everyday folks and their anxieties. As the chorus breaks, this one takes a decidedly Traveling Wilburys feel; the stuttering muted guitars combine with a steady drum to create locomotion. There’s a feeling throughout this song of reluctance, where the vocals resist, but give in at the persistent urge of the guitar, which is ultimately representing time’s unrelenting march. I really like the steady descending chords of the bridge — there hadn’t been much movement in the chord progression to that point, with only a melancholy-twinged pre-chorus hope spot to break it open. This is a completely unique-feeling song among Sara’s repertoire — a feeling that hits several times across this record.
- Miss Simone: Sara on the guitar — it’s been a minute. This is an absolutely lovely ballad; strong but soft vocals soar over the jazzily-acoustic backing band, front and center. Throughout the narrative, she makes it feel like there’s nobody else around but her and the subject of her desires. The four-chord I-V-ii-IV progression is perfect — I adore the minor second. In fact, there is a smattering of atypical chord switches, keeping the listener on their toes. It’s heart-wrenching, comforting, but uneasy at the same time. You could say it sounds exactly like falling in love feels. Or, at least the romantic ideal of falling in love. This is the kind of song Sara absolutely excels at, yet has only done less than a handful of times. It reminds me heavily of “I Just Want You,” and unreleased ukelele song she performed on her 2013 solo tour, albeit warmer and more lively. I have a feeling I’ll be listening to this one a lot.
- Wicked Love: Reluctant staccato piano tangles with uncertain vocals as happy drums and bass bounce behind. The conversational tone and spacey accompaniment remind me a lot of The Blessed Unrest while the layered vocal crescendos in the second half of the verses recalls the songs of Waitress. I bet it would fit pretty seamlessly into the musical or, at the very least, What’s Inside. All that said, this might yet be the most Kaleidoscope Heart song on the album. Something about it just feels like it belongs in 2010, despite the complete shifts among most of the other songs so far on this record. It’s good, if not especially memorable, though I adore the closing bars.
- Orpheus: A relaxing, warm song based around swirling guitars and plodding upright. I picture a fireplace crackling away at night, even before Sara sings “come by the fire.” Her lower register here is like a blanket; comforting and cozy. It’s another something new, yet so basic I’m shocked she hasn’t really done a lot of contralto singing before. It mingles nicely with her typical alto vocals throughout the choruses as the two guitars also interweave their parts. It reminds me a lot of Joshua Radin, which actually makes me think he could do an awesome cover of this. I only wish this had been released in the late fall or winter. It’s that kind of song.
- Poetry By Dead Men: There’s finally piano again. Sort of. It’s chipper and bright, but distorted and very slightly moving in and out of pitch — very Arcade Fire, though that comparison is short lived. Curiously, the vocal phrasing — quickly sung in stretches of monotone and often overshooting the bars — reminds me a lot of HAIM. I wonder what that’s all about? Overall, I’m not sure this one really has any sticking power. It’s alright, but it’s a definite lull in the late middle of an otherwise stellar run of songs.
- Someone Who Loves Me: This is the only song off this record that Sara did not play at the concert. It was supposed to be the first encore, but she swapped it out for “Gravity.” Honestly, I’m not sure if she should have done that — this song is really good. It’s atmospheric, moody, and tender, with excellent deployment of tri-tones in the verses and choruses. A male accompaniment comes in during the second chorus, which is new (if you ignore Jason Mraz on What’s Inside). No idea who it is, though it sounds a lot like him, actually. (Edit: It’s Joey Ryan from Milk Carton Kids) Like “Orpheus,” this is a song that would be awesome to listen to on a dark winter’s night.
- Saint Honesty: At the show, Sara told us the story of how this song was recorded in a single take — and god damn is it a magical one. It’s Sara at the piano; reserved brushes, bass and guitar stay well behind her. Her vocals effortlessly slide between powerful and delicate, smooth as velvet and pitch perfect. There are similarities to “Stay,” from Once Upon Another Time, but this lands heavier, with more confidence and maturity. As it evolves, Sara is slowly unleashed, letting her outstanding vocal prowess shine ever stronger — the bridge and its transition into the final chorus is truly a standout moment on a Sara Bareilles album, perhaps one of my favorite single stretches in a song in years. She closed her show with this song, and yeah, we all went home happy that night.
- A Safe Place To Land: To finish, Sara duets with John Legend in a moving ode inspired by the suffering of migrants in recent years. Strong piano chords bolster words softer than clouds, while the music shifts between stable and uncertain in a major/major/minor sequence. During an uplifting bridge, Sara’s vocals are high and gentle as John’s are strained and loud below — piano steady as strings crescendo and a plucked mandolin arcs. It closes on a hopeful note amidst a gently chaotic swirl of tremolo strings.
I’m going to need a minute. There’s so much here and it ends so strongly that I’ve actually kind of already forgotten the first half. Overall, it’s a very different album — there are far more acoustic guitars than pianos, and the band’s equipment remains largely consistent throughout. Burnett’s production keeps is stripped back and simple, while also bringing in influences across several genres past and present. There are so many phenomenal self-harmonies, but also a handful of random, unexpected vocal accompaniments. There are several immediately gripping standout tracks (“Armor,” “Miss Simone,” “Saint Honesty”) and a bunch that I know will grow on me. I have to credit Sara immensely for indulging in these varying styles. I may just skip “If I Can’t Have You” more than I listen to it, but then again, it might result in me expanding my own tastes. Lyrically, it’s heavily influenced by the current political climate, which is an omnipresent source of anxiety and dread these days. During her show, Sara often noted how she dealt with these anxieties through her music, and perhaps this album will help me cope as well. Amongst her previous work, I really can’t say where this lands for me. It’s a really good album; I just need some time for it to sink in and take me over. The concert in March was an excellent start — let’s see where it goes from here.