You know, of all the releases over the past couple of weeks, it seems like this is the one that’s flown under the radar the most.
And it’s not hard to see why: outside of the singles, most of the mainstream seems to have had a touch-and-go relationship with Sara Bareilles‘ brand of sharply written adult-alternative indie pop – they’re not going to complain about getting tunes like ‘Love Song’ or ‘King Of Anything’ or even ‘Brave’, but they’re not really going to go out of their way to find more from her. Which is a shame, because while I’d struggle to put her among the upper tier of piano-driven pop rock – it’s a crowded field, and while I think her albums are consistently pretty good I’d struggle to call her great across the board – I think Sara Bareilles has a lot going for her with a strident vocal tone, well-structured lyrics, and a pop sensibility that can give her a sense of accessibility and make her easier to revisit than many of her peers.
That said, the flip side to this is if she can’t deliver the hooks or a more striking performance, it’s easy to brush her music aside, and as much as I think there are some underrated album cuts on her 2013 album The Blessed Unrest, underwhelming compositions and slightly oversold production combined with weaker writing did leave the album as rather forgettable, or at the very least not as cutting as she’s been in the past. Now that review was one of the first I ever put to video, so I was curious to revisit her material over a thousand reviews later, especially given this new album was coming off a lot of well-received stage work and was looking to get a lot more political. What caught more of my interest were cowriting credits from Lori McKenna – who I still hold as one of the best writers working in music of all genres right now – so I’ll admit I had some high expectations yet again, so what did we find from Amidst The Chaos?
So I’ll freely admit that it was my plan to put this on the Trailing Edge, because at the end of the day, this is a Sara Bareilles album that as a whole probably will not change your mind on whether you need to hear it… but that was before I gave the Weyes Blood album a half dozen listens and realized that I somehow had even less to say about that and then remembered at least Sara Bareilles had songs with distinctive hooks and punch, even if it’s all in a very safe, middle-brow way that I question would move any sort of needle.
Granted, that in and of itself is a fascinating question surrounding politics in art, so let me bring back my three P’s and start with the content – because yes, you can make the argument that simply through its more accessible, inviting delivery, especially coming a few years after the rage might have cooled in the general public, this album has a certain easy populist appeal. Hell, as much as it’s an easy – and accurate – stereotype of the white coffeeshop liberal whose brand of rebellion is mild-mannered and best served by numbers rather than intensity or precision, it’s hard to avoid the truth that there’s more of them than the folks who take radical progressive stances, and if art like this pushes them gently enough in a good direction, there’s a place for it. But there are a few problems with this, namely that this is the sort of “rebellion” that rarely drives the systemic change that could really shake things up – and yet since it’s the most marketable it tends to attract the most attention – and more importantly, as a critic of the art who appreciates complexity, this stuff rarely proves as challenging or thought-provoking or visceral as the more radical stuff. And Sara Bareilles might as well be the poster child of acts in this very safe lane, and I’ll be blunt: when the political commentary does happen, it’s hard to take it all that seriously. This is where the other two P’s of my guidelines for political art come in, because while Sara Bareilles might have wider appeal, when she makes statements that some of her otherwise pretty standard breakup ballads like ‘No Such Thing’ and ‘If I Can’t Have You’ are framed at former U.S. president Obama, it can be a little jarring and silly to take in. I don’t doubt her intentions here are good, but when you have songs like ‘Armor’ and ‘A Safe Place to Land’ pointed at the Kavanaugh confirmation and separations at the border, there’s a lack of raw intensity and precision that blunts their impact, not helped by broader poetry, less sizzle in the production, vocal delivery that can’t even match her rougher songs in the past, and really sloppy sequencing. The one track that seems to get close to capturing the unease and disorder over the past few years is ‘Eyes On You’, and even then it feels scattered, more reliant on a good hook and a slightly rougher groove than anything that dark in the writing.
And I only bring this much attention to it because if these cuts worked nearly as well as the more detailed and textured relationship songs, it wouldn’t be an issue – not even that they’re bad, but when Sara Bareilles sticks the landing, she has some really great tunes here! A lot of this is helped by the production from T Bone Burnett – more organic and stripped back, leaning into R&B and soul textures but not in a way that feels obtrusive or oversold – but you can also tell Bareilles is pulling from her recent experience in theater to craft soundscapes and melodies that aim to pull a little harder; she makes great ‘yearning’ music, if that makes any sense, where the emotion might be straightforward but there are subtleties to be pulled if from the well, and that’s one reason why her more detailed songs cut deeper for me. The burned out exasperation of ‘Fire’, the pleas for trust in the relationship amidst a chaotic world on ‘Orpheus’, and perhaps my favorite on ‘Poetry By Dead Men’, where she truly wanted the relationship to stick the landing but was left high and dry by his indecision, with just enough mundane details to set the scene – a trick that the Lori McKenna-cowritten ‘Miss Simone’ also nails in its romantic vibe and the details in the quest of truth on ‘Saint Honesty’. And here’s the thing: even with the big hooks that this album nails like on ‘Fire’ and ‘Eyes On You’ and ‘Orpheus’ – mostly thanks to some really good vocal multi-tracking – you do need that songwriter’s instinct given how spare the instrumentals can feel just to add a little more color, because once again the grooves seem like they’ve been given more attention than the melodies, most of which are just allowed to loop or in the case of guitars sizzle or sputter in the background. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s organic and tasteful and lends Sara Bareilles’ music more soulfulness than you’d ever expect… but for as good as the hooks are, you have to wonder if the tune was developed or allowed to really take off and get more theatrical how much they could really soar. And that goes for songs like ‘Armor’ where the lumbering melody never quite coalesces, or songs like ‘If I Can’t Have You’ or ‘Someone Who Loves Me’, where in the former case not even the key change can make up for an underwhelming composition.
But at the end of the day… look, I’m exasperated reviewing this album for many of the same reasons I’m exasperated when I cover John Legend or Alicia Keys or Common or Josh Groban or really any number of adult-alternative acts over the past decade: there’s a ton of raw talent and ability to sell big ideas in a compelling way, but there’s something calculated in how the big chances are not being taken because that could jeopardize their middle-of-the-road audience. And yeah, that group who might be scared off by the slightest hint of distortion need music too, but I think back to the 90s where that era of writers made up for it with sharper poetry, or if they got political there were enough hidden blades to really cut if you’re paying attention – that’s one reason I’ve praised artists like Lori McKenna so much in her brand of Americana, she’s mastered that cutting stroke. But I feel like Sara Bareilles’ attempts to make ‘meaningful’ statements fall flat here because they demand either complexity or intensity to make an impact, especially when she’s capable of delivering both when she steps into more personal material. And yet it’s those songs that are just good enough to knock this up to a light 7/10 – again, the good songs here are genuinely great, and I do find this to be an improvement over The Blessed Unrest. So if you or a parent are in the market for a project like this… eh, give it a listen, it’s fine. Otherwise… a few choice cuts, but otherwise you could move on.