Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sara Bareilles - The Blessed Unrest

Of the artists who have broken through to the mainstream in the past ten years or so, Sara Bareilles has one of the best stories. Signed to Epic Records after songs from her independent debut album began gaining traction on television shows and around the web, Bareilles was suddenly under a whole new kind of pressure. Her major label debut—titled Little Voice—was set to be a collection of both new songs and reworked highlights from the previous album, but even as the record began to take shape, it lacked a single. Buried under stress, insecurity, and anger, Bareilles wrote “Love Song,” a track whose propulsive hook masked what was basically a “fuck you” to the songwriter’s record label. Naturally, the song blew up, becoming one of the most ubiquitous pop hits of the late 2000s and skyrocketing Bareilles to rarefied pop star status without even breaking a sweat.

Epic rewarded Bareilles’s success in 2010, giving her the budget, the freedom, and the bombastic production necessary to indulge her every quirk and fancy on Kaleidoscope Heart. The result was not only one of the most cohesive pop records of its year, but one of the best as well. From springing pop hooks (“King of Anything”) to raw, stripped down balladry (“Basket Case”), choral-infused vocal layering (the title track) to pounding piano rock (“Machine Gun”), Kaleidoscope Heart maintained everything that had made Bareilles interesting in the first place while simultaneously expanding her sonic palette in every single way. The gorgeous melodies, lush arrangements, musical variations and emotional ebbs and flows of that record made it a truly dynamic listening experience, and I am still finding new things I love about it nearly three years after the fact.

Which leads me to The Blessed Unrest, Bareilles’s fourth full-length studio record to date and her third on a major label. At the start, it feels like the lightning-in-the-bottle adventurousness of Kaleidoscope Heart has been traded for a more streamlined and radio-pop sound, but that’s not necessarily the case. Opener and first single “Brave” is a more obvious play for mainstream popularity than virtually anything Bareilles has done in the past--certainly a far cry from the a cappella commencement of the last record--but the song’s skyscraping hook proves to be the seed the album grows from rather than the template after which it is modeled. The song’s pounding beats and staccato piano chords may lead some listeners to ignore the lyrics and write it off as a throwaway piece of pop filler, but in reality, “Brave” is a plea for honesty, openness, and tolerance in the gay movement. Co-written by fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff, it’s hardly surprising that “Brave” has managed to make a sizable dent in the radio charts. But knowing Bareilles, the mainstream accessibility of the song is probably of secondary importance to the personal meaning behind it, and that goes for the rest of the album as well.

If “Brave” is the most obvious single from The Blessed Unrest, that doesn’t mean it’s the only one. The album continues with “Chasing the Sun,” a similarly big and grandiose pop song, centered around Bareilles’s trademark piano songwriting and boasting a nice bit of lyrical imagery about “build[ing] a cemetery in the center of Queens.” “Little Black Dress” gallops along with a foot-tapping beat and an arrangement of subtle brass hits, all in service of a chorus which generates the same kind of forget-the-bullshit pop bliss that’s made Taylor Swift’s “22” an absolute staple for night-out-on-the-town playlists. And the interstellar “come on, come on, collide” hook from “Cassiopeia” is one of the record’s most euphoric moments: you can legitimately hear Bareilles grinning as she delivers the line, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Elsewhere though, the record gets a bit more adventurous. See the dark and textured “Hercules,” where Bareilles gives one of the best vocal performances of her career and comes out sounding like early-period Fiona Apple in the process. The opening of “Eden” could have been lifted straight from the center of a Prince record, while “I Choose You” gives Bareilles’s world-class belting voice a rest in favor of a breathy, understated, and percussive slice of pop that wouldn’t sound out of place at an Ingrid Michaelson or Regina Spektor concert.

But as much as I love her catchy pop songs and her forays into more uncharted territory, it’s when Bareilles slows down the tempo that she really knocks it out of the park. There aren’t many singer/songwriters working today who can craft a better ballad, and The Blessed Unrest only offers further evidence of that. “Manhattan” recalls some of her earliest work—think “Gravity” from the first two records—and sounds classy and timeless in such a way that it’s almost remarkable the song didn’t exist until this year. Where many of Bareilles’s ballads are built up with lush and layered arrangements, “Manhattan” could thrive on nothing more than piano and voice; it’s the kind of song that could hit with equal force in a sparsely-populated jazz club or a sold-out amphitheater. And while horn arrangements do populate pieces of the song, “Manhattan” is at its best when you can hear the creaks of the piano bench, the pressing of the keys, and Bareilles’s every breath floating through the recording, all accentuated by a slick layer of reverb. “I’ll wish this away, this missing of days when I was one half of two,” Bareilles croons in the final verse. “You can have Manhattan, ‘cause I can’t have you.”

The album’s other cornerstone ballads, the laser-blast reverie of “Satellite Call” and the aching climax of the penultimate “Islands,” take the album as close as it gets to the lush beauty of Kaleidoscope Heart. Both tracks build gorgeous sonic towers from vocal harmonies, piano keys, and plentiful studio flourishes, and both represent the thing that most differentiates Bareilles from her radio-pop contemporaries. Where so many mainstream artists (or label-hired producers) suck the life out of a song by covering it with iteration upon iteration of studio wizardry, Bareilles uses the studio as an instrument, as a character that adds life rather than subtracting it. The songwriter gets primary production credit on nine of the 12 tracks from The Blessed Unrest, and on many of them, she uses that position to build the sort of stunning and nuanced arrangements that elevate her songs beyond traditional singer/songwriter fare. When all of the pieces finally coalesce near the end of “Islands,” after three and a half minutes of constant build, it’s arguably the most breathtaking moment of any song I’ve heard all year, by anyone, and the fact is, I could say that about a number of songs on this record. Some will still write Bareilles off as a radio-bound pop-tart, but with The Blessed Unrest and Kaleidoscope Heart before it, the singer/songwriter is responsible for two of the finest pop records of the past five years. That’s not something that happens by accident when you’re only in it for the hits.

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