Monday, July 15, 2013

album review: 'the blessed unrest' by sara bareilles

The year was 2007, and Billboard's Hot 100 chart was surging on a wave of hits. The pop rock boom of the mid-2000s was at its peak, Justin Timberlake had released his smash album Futuresex Lovesounds and with collaborators Nelly Furtado and Timbaland had taken the charts by storm. Coupled with the creative resurgence of Gwen Stefani, the peak of Fergie's, Akon's and Avril Lavigne's careers, Kanye West's well-publicized rivalry with 50 Cent, and the arrival of soon-to-be megastar Rihanna, it was a year full of monster hits that remain surprisingly solid to this day. Sure, there is a fair amount of junk - mostly courtesy of Nickelback and the post-grunge movement that just wouldn't goddamn die - but the hits of this year aren't just good, they probably can be considered some of the definitive tracks of the decade. And what's more impressive is that so many acts reached creative high-points in 2007, most of which would carry over into the slightly weaker (but still shockingly good) 2008. 

And it's not just that these songs were good (because a lot of them weren't) - they stuck in the cultural consciousness and most remain just as well-remembered six years later. This was the year Carrie Underwood smashed through with 'Before He Cheats', Maroon 5 released 'Makes Me Wonder', Beyonce dropped 'Irreplaceable', The Fray put out 'How To Save A Life', Snow Patrol charted with 'Chasing Cars', and even Amy Winehouse broke through with 'Rehab'. Hell, even the one-hit wonders of the time like 'Hey There Delilah' by the Plain White T's managed to lodge its way into our minds and bury themselves in the cultural unconscious. Even if you weren't paying any attention to the radio in 2007, I can guarantee that most of you recognize the songs I just listed, and frankly, I didn't even touch half of it.

But it's also in 2007 that a newly signed singer-songwriter named Sara Bareilles was asked to finish off her major label debut with a love song. But the songwriting process was going nowhere, and a fit of rage, she wrote one of the defining hits of the decade, a song blasting her label in a fit of angry guitar and pounding piano. And while it wouldn't seriously impact the charts until 2008, Sara Bareilles' 'Love Song' is a staple of the decade and a goddamn masterpiece of pop music. Every element works incredibly well - the sharp edges of the lyrics, the pounding instrumentals that speak to raw frustration, the sheer passion in Bareilles' vocals - and it all comes together into a song that speaks to creative frustration and the drive for independence. And speaking as a creator, I can definitely get behind this particular sentiment.

And thus I had reasonably high expectations when I went through Sara Bareilles' major label releases before The Blessed Unrest, and the underlying hope that 'Love Song' wasn't just a flash in the pan. And for once, things turned out well, with both of her albums being very solid, very well-written pop rock that sticks in the memory (with Little Voice arguably being a touch better than Kaleidoscope Heart). Described by some critics as a blend between Alicia Keys and Regina Spektor (the latter whose album I reviewed last year), Sara Bareilles manages to combine the best elements of both artists, despite them being in a genre for which I typically have a distaste: the 'White-Girl-With-Piano' genre. Now I'll admit my opinions have evolved since I reviewed What We Saw From The Cheap Seats last year, and while I'm still not a fan of the genre, I think I've been able to pinpoint why: there is very little diversity when it comes to subject matter and execution. 

I realize that I'm definitely not the target audience for Sara Bareilles and her contemporaries' work, but I can't help but notice that the genre often fails to stretch itself both in the material and the delivery, which can lead to a certain smug self-satisfaction dominating tracts of the material. It's not just that it feels interchangeable and boring, but that there is no deeper passion underlying the work - and if there is, it doesn't feel authentic. And when some the artists (Regina Spektor and Lily Allen comes to mind) do try to stretch the subject matter, they come across as so insufferably pleased with themselves that it becomes intolerable. 

So what makes Sara Bareilles stand out against the crowd? Well, unlike her contemporaries, she often seems to be trying, incorporating a greater vocal presence and more passionate soul into her delivery. Yes, I'll admit that most of the time the subject matter is small and reasonably simple, but she sells it and it feels real. And in comparison to Alicia Keys, Sara Bareilles is smart enough to delve into a greater spread of subject matter and instrumentation other than just underwritten piano-driven ballads. It definitely helps that Sara Bareilles has a real knack for punchy, sly little rhymes that show some clever construction. No, it's not quite as organic as Kacey Musgraves, but it's close. And really, the harshest criticism I'll make against Sara Bareilles is that sometimes she just doesn't try as hard as she could, which lead to serviceable, but occasionally tedious songs.

So what do I think about her newest album, The Blessed Unrest?

Youtube review after the jump.

Well, it definitely isn't bad, and a lot of the good things I described about the album above are all still true. Unfortunately, it's also Sara Bareilles' weakest and most inconsistent album to date, and the problems that might have been lurking on the edges on previous albums are now in plain sight. It's by no means bad - hell, by the standards of this year, I'd argue it's pretty good - but I can't help but feel that Sara Bareilles might be joining The Strokes, Avril Lavigne, and Armin van Buuren in the list of acts that peaked with their first album.

Let's start with the production. Sara Bareilles has always had a reputation of writing very solid pop melodies that fit into the modern music landscape almost suspiciously well. But a problem I spotted on her previous album Kaleidoscope Heart was the usage of production to make the sound more expansive instead of relying on instrumental intensity or energy - which, to me, strikes me as precisely the wrong direction. In fact, it reminded me of All That Echoes, the album by Josh Groban I reviewed earlier this year, where the production was being used to make the songs sound more epic and expansive instead of relying on the vocalist. 

But here's the thing: like Josh Groban, Sara Bareilles doesn't need this. She has a powerful voice with an impressive range, and on the better tracks of The Blessed Unrest, we see that. But it also sounds like someone in the studio told her to tone it down a bit and let the production take over, and while the production is good, it does reflect a loss of musical personality that just feels wrong. And coupled with the more muted and subdued instrumentation, with little of the clattering energy of her first two albums, it really begins to render some of her material rather bland.

And here's where we have to talk about the songwriting. Now, as I've said, Sara Bareilles typically writes smaller, more intimate songs, with topics that can carry a lot of emotional weight but aren't exactly ones that are meant to be addressed to anyone outside of a smaller audience. Even her louder songs tend to have a tighter focus, not so much introspective or self-obsessed as private and personal. And while these songs don't tend to be my thing, I can definitely recognize quality when I see it and Sara Bareilles manages to nail the balance here exceptionally well.

So I don't know whose utterly imbecilic idea it was that she should lead off the album with an overblown, crowd-pleasing anthem in 'Brave' (that just so happens to share the title of Josh Groban's lead-off single from All That Echoes), but it definitely doesn't work nearly as well as it should. Sure, it's not a bad song, but it's definitely a weaker entry in Bareilles' singles, and it just doesn't measure up when compared to 'Love Song' or 'King of Anything'.

What it is indicative of is a marked decrease in the songwriting quality on the rest of the album, which feels distinctly less sharp in comparison with its predecessors. Sure, there is still poetry, but none of it feels as cutting or as sly - and without that edge, her album just gets a lot less interesting. The most interesting tracks turn out to be 'Chasing The Sun' and 'Manhattan', both songs that use well-developed metaphors with regards to New York to explore situations (finding your life's calling in the former and a breakup in the latter). And for each of those songs it seems we get a few tedious love songs that don't have enough personality or energy to be interesting. Sure, they contain some pretty and clever wordplay, but certainly nothing that interesting, and the fact that Bareilles sounds less invested in these songs certainly doesn't help matters.

But I asked myself the question, 'Well, is that part of the point?' After all, the title of the album is The Blessed Unrest, so could Bareilles be making the point that she derives more of her artistic passion from the turbulence in her relationship rather than the contentment, that she relishes the conflict over the peace? It certainly would make sense with regards to the rest of her material, where it always seemed like her best material was rooted in conflict and angry passion. So with that in mind, could Bareilles be making a meta-contextual point with the stronger material on her album being the songs about turbulent or broken relationships?

It's an interesting hypothesis, to be sure, but then I remembered another fact: even though the slower, more content material might not be to my taste, and even though I can acknowledge it was still reasonably well-written, I can recognize quality when I hear it. And to be blunt, songs like 'I Choose You' on The Blessed Unrest just aren't very good and can't match the quality of the rest of the album. I might not fit within the demographic sweet spot for these sorts of songs, but I can acknowledge when it's done right, and despite the pretty writing and occasionally clever turn of phrase, there's a shallow emptiness to this material that just isn't very good, ironic statement or not.

So in summary, while I don't precisely think The Blessed Unrest is bad - there's still enough good writing, good singing, and solid themes to keep it from the slush pile - it's definitely the weakest of Sara Bareilles' discography thus far. To me, it feels as if Sara Bareilles is starting to adopt some of the worse traits of her genre, particularly in the shallower songwriting, and while it's still far smarter and more emotionally grounded than most of her genre, I can't help but feel that it's a step backwards. If you're a fan, you'll probably still like it, but otherwise, take my recommendation with a strong asterisk.


  1. "(in 2007) there is a fair amount of junk - mostly courtesy of Nickelback and the post-grunge movement that just wouldn't goddamn die"

    To be fair, the post-grunge movement (which probably would've died sooner had Green Day's American Idiot not revitalized interest in guitar-driven pop music mid-decade, come to think of it) started to die off pretty much immediately after that, and by 2010 it was all but gone (and replaced with a lot more junk).

  2. "Beyonce dropped 'Irreplaceable', The Fray put out 'How To Save A Life', Snow Patrol charted with 'Chasing Cars'"

    That was all fall 2006... a miserable time for pop music, in my opinion... Evanescence's "Call Me When You're Sober" and Hinder's "Lips of an Angel" were big that same fall...