Sara Bareilles’ ‘The Blessed Unrest’: Album Review

Mike Wass | July 16, 2013 5:45 am
It’s no coincidence that Sara Bareilles introduced The Blessed Unrest (out today, ) to the world with the burst of sparkling piano-pop on steroids otherwise known as “Brave”. On her fourth studio album, the 33-year-old expands her musical horizons – freeing herself from the Lilith Fair chains that bound her previous offerings. Sara’s lyrics are still as sharp, insightful and literate as we’ve come to expect from the woman behind tunes like “King Of Anything” and “Hold My Heart” but this time around she creates in widescreen, embracing an unexpected pop sensibility and mixing up her usually narrow soundscape with subtle synths, hand claps and quirky samples.

“I like to think I’m this cool indie-singer songwriter but I’m not,” admitted the UCLA graduate in her Sara Bareilles Makes A Record web documentary. “I am totally a pop person and I love pop music. I just don’t always feel like I fit in.” Funnily enough, not fitting the mould is exactly what makes her an interesting pop star. Embracing individuality is the theme of Sara’s George Takei-approved lead single “Brave”, which apparently documents a friend’s coming out story. Not that you’d know that from hearing it on the radio. This is the most unselfconsciously ‘pop’ track the often earnest diva has dropped since her breakthrough hit “Love Song”. The Mark Endert-produced anthem is an uplifting pep talk set to perky piano-pop. It shimmers with hope and possibility without ever being overbearing. This is throwback to the 1970s when credibility and catchiness were not mutually exclusive.

Bareilles called on Endert to help her create another two potential singles. In her mini-documentary, Sara was refreshingly honest about making tracks with the explicit goal of radio airplay. “I want my songs to be played on the radio,” she said. “But I don’t need a radio hit so bad that I’m willing to do anything for it.” She need not worry. The other Endert co-helmed tracks, while embracing an obvious pop sensibility, stay true to her core musical values and are definite album highlights.

“Chasing The Sun” references her move to New York to start a new life — both creatively and personally. It’s a toweringly optimistic anthem about pursuing hopes and dreams that pulses with the excitement of new beginnings. “I Choose You”, while more standard Bareilles fare on the surface, is one of the most expansive productions of her career. The kooky staccato beats and sprinkling of synths lift the soaring love song to new heights. The pretty lyrics (“Unfold before you what I’ve strung together, the very first words of a life-long love letter”) make the new sound easier to swallow for old school fans.

The rest of the album was co-produced by Irishman John O’Mahonny, who has previously worked with indie-pop/rock outfits like Metric and The Panics. He is perhaps a truer fit to Bareilles’ vision – taking her introspective gems and placing them on a wider canvas. The best example is the sad, pathetic “1000 Times”, which beautifully documents the pain of unrequited love. It burns with anger (“I would die to make you mine, bleed me dry each and every time) and hopelessness (“kiss me good night like a good friend might”). This is Sara untamed. Her always emotive voice roams wildly over the eerie guitar soundscape. It’s her take on the blues and it works brilliantly. Album closer “December” is another triumph. This is a softer, quieter take on the sadness associated with ending something and the seed of positivity that comes with turning a new page. Sara sings: “To give yourself a new life you got to give the other one away.” This is a clear reference to her move to the East Coast but also perhaps her new expansive sound.

Perhaps the most arresting moment – lyrically and musically – on The Blessed Unrest is “Satellite Call”. This ghostly, sprawling love song (in the purest sense) finds the pianist at her most minimal as she softly croons against guitar feedback and basic percussion. “You are all just perfect little satellites, spinning around and around this broken earthly light,” she sings. “This is so you know the sound, someone who loves you from the ground.” It’s hard to know if Sara is singing about lost loved ones or putting a message of love out there into the world for anyone who needs it. Not that it matters. This eerily beautiful ode to caring for someone works on both levels. Similarly outside of Sara’s comfort zone is the equally sedate but multi-layered “Islands”. The production here is beautiful – combining the singer’s trademark piano with vocal samples and interesting little flourishes. The lyrics are not quite as arresting but it’s extremely atmospheric.

If it all sounds a bit much of a departure for you, take heart. There are some cuts that wouldn’t sound out of place on any of Sara’s previous albums. Sad piano ballad “Manhattan”, which serves as the album’s best late night break-up song. “I’ll bow out of place to save you some space for somebody new,” our heroine sings mournfully. Similarly familiar is “Little Black Dress”, which sounds like a throwback to the cute piano-pop of Little Voice at first listen but then you notice the fuller sound courtesy of doo-wop backing vocals and brass. The song even features the singer’s sister on backing vocals, which is a cute touch. There a couple of misfires here. Not bad songs but bores. The Greek mythology inspired “Hercules” misses the mark, while astrologers are the only people likely to have a burning connection with “Cassiopeia”. Likewise, give bonus track “I Wanna Be Like Me” a miss. This is an upbeat synth-experiment that went very, very wrong.

The departure might unsettle the faithful momentarily but this is the record that will ensure Sara isn’t banished from the radio like so many serious female singer-songwriters before her.

The Best Song That Wasn’t The Single: Sara was pretty clear about this in her web documentary. “Chasing The Sun” and “I Choose You” are all but certain to get a single release. I’d love “1000 Times” to at least get a shot at indie/college radio.

Full Disclosure: I have a soft spot for emotional female singer-songwriters – from Tori Amos to Beth Orton and Tracy Bonham. I love them all, so this was always going to to end up on my iPod.

Pops Like: Elton John by way of The xx.

Idolator Score: 4/5

Mike Wass