Review: Sara Bareilles Shines On Honest & Rich ‘Amidst The Chaos’
It’s been six long years since Sara Bareilles released her last pop album, The Blessed Unrest. After gracing the world with songs like “Brave” and “I Choose You,” Sara took an unexpected turn into books and theater. In October 2015, Sara released a memoir, Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) In Song. She also wrote all the music for a new musical called Waitress, and in November 2015, a selection of those new songs appeared on Sara’s themed album, What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress. Since then, Sara has acted in musicals (including Waitress), hosted awards shows, and released a handful of songs for films and musicals. But her pop return was overdue, and last summer, she began recording what would become Amidst The Chaos. It was a long and busy wait, but so worth it.
In contrast to the electronically charged The Blessed Unrest, Sara’s new album moves in the opposite direction, pulling together acoustic guitar, piano, and strings to form a sound that is organic and layered. Sara promised a “rootsy” vibe last summer, and producer T Bone Burnett has ensured the songs are as real and rich as they can be.
Throughout Amidst The Chaos, earlier influences are evident in their impact on Sara’s updated sound. Much of the music here would fit right in on a record from the 1960s or ’70s. This is in part due to the background vocals filling out the sound. On some songs, those backing vocals come courtesy of singer-songwriter Emily King. Lush strings also lend the album a fuller and richer presence reminiscent of those past decades.
Amidst The Chaos offers up a diverse array of styles, too. Songs like “Fire” and “Eyes On You” veer the farthest into folksy territory, complete with acoustic strumming and jangling beats. Other tunes are upbeat and more comparable to Sara’s past albums; tracks like “Wicked Love” and “Poetry By Dead Men” will instantly capture listeners’ attention. Many of the other songs, however, deliver Sara’s softer and more contemplative side. Ballads like “Orpheus” and “Someone Who Loves Me” balance out Amidst The Chaos, and ultimately may be the songs that offer the most layers to uncover.
Lyrically, Sara explores a lot of new themes. Of course, we have some excellent love songs and breakup songs. Sara also snuck in a few tracks dedicated to the Obamas – though on the surface, these songs would easily pass as being about romantic relationships. Perhaps the most overtly political song is album closer “A Safe Place To Land,” which features John Legend. The duo open their hearts to refugees and encourage listeners to do the same, but from a place of love more than politics.
Sara turns inward in the face of so much social and political turmoil on meditative tracks like “Eyes On You” and “Orpheus”. But ultimately, she finds fierce strength in the woman’s empowerment song, “Armor,” which was the timely lead single last fall. In spite of all that’s wrong with the world, Amidst The Chaos offers light and hope.
Amidst The Chaos is an enchanting yet earthy album, and the most immediately enjoyable record Sara has released so far. It’s a gorgeous addition to her repertoire, and poised to be one of our favorite albums of 2019.
Track by Track
“Fire” – Amidst The Chaos opens with mysterious humming which is quickly offset by guitar and mandolin. It has a folky energy that grows into a huge chorus, which in turn ends with cascades of “Fire”. Sara sings about a short-lived relationship that was doomed from the start. But where that relationship failed, it also helped her understand what she wanted in a future lover. “Fire” was the second single from the album, and though it’s one of the most unexpected sounds for Sara, it also quickly grows on you.
“No Such Thing” – After the big opening, Amidst The Chaos takes it down a notch for “No Such Thing,” a promo song fans first heard last month. The track starts low and murky, but soon high, tinkling piano and fluttering harp join in to give it a dreamy, romantic sound. Its lightness is reminiscent of “I Choose You,” but taken down a sadder path. “No Such Thing” is a delicate song that seems to describe an unwanted breakup. Close enough: Sara actually wrote it about the Obamas after their 8-year presidency drew to an unfortunate end. Sara co-wrote this song with Justin Tranter.
“Armor” – Last fall, Sara shared “Armor” as the timely lead single. She wrote it in early 2017 after the Women’s Marches, but after the horrific Kavanaugh hearings of 2018, the message felt all too relevant. Indeed, “Armor” is a feminist anthem that celebrates women and the strength we give each other. The song starts with low piano and a spot-on retelling of Adam and Eve (“how the hell did Eve end up with all the damn blame?”), leading into a fierce, confident message. Sara has described “Armor” as the centerpiece of the record, and she’s not wrong.
“If I Can’t Have You” – Sara co-wrote “If I Can’t Have You” with Aaron Sterling and Emily King; Emily also sings on the track. Of all the songs on Amidst The Chaos, this one sounds the most obviously like an homage to the 1960s. Sara excels in this old-school soulful vibe, and Emily’s backing vocals add to that rich sound. Based on the lyrics, fans would naturally think this is a breakup song meant for someone you still love. But again, fans would be wrong. Sara told an audience last month that it, too, was inspired by the Obamas.
“Eyes On You” – After the 2016 election, Sara was in a dark place (she’s candidly explained that she’s suffered from depression and anxiety for many years now). To get back into a good headspace, Sara enrolled in a meditation class. “Eyes On You” came out of this personal experience. Sara describes real people and their diverse backgrounds in the verses’ lyrics. The lovely pre-choruses feature some of Sara’s lowest vocals, but then it leads to an unexpectedly energetic and folky chorus.
“Miss Simone” – Sara calls out her 1960s muse by name on “Miss Simone,” a song she wrote with Lori McKenna. Over rich guitars and a gentle, lazy soundscape, Sara sings about falling in love with her boyfriend, Joe Tippett, to the soundtrack of Nina Simone. Her vocals glide high and lush strings add a sweet layer to the mix as we hear about dancing on a candlelit rooftop. With full background vocals again, “Miss Simone” harkens back to early soulful music on this gorgeous love song.
“Wicked Love” – Last summer, Sara teased a beautiful clip of her singing, “You said I think too much…” Now fans can finally hear the rest of this song, and after all the hype that’s built up, “Wicked Love” is indeed a standout on the album. Sara revealed that it was one of the last songs she wrote for the album: “I was inspired by a voice memo I found by accident on my phone and it was one of the final additions to the record, written just days before I left for LA to begin recording! Just in time!” Over an infectious beat and soulful chord progressions, Sara describes a man whose love traps her like a firefly. This song is an uptempo bop that brings a bit of fun into the mix.
“Orpheus” – The title track for Amidst The Chaos, “Orpheus” is one of Sara’s favorites. She described it as “my gentle prayer for the world right now”. Indeed, this is a soft song that plays like a reassuring lullaby. Although the world is on fire and many bad things are happening, she’s here to provide some peace and hope. Strings fade in on the second verse, making “Orpheus” richer and sweeter. It’s a beautiful and worthy title track.
“Poetry By Dead Men” – Here’s another clip Sara teased last year. Track #9 starts with twinkling piano and an ominous “By the time you hear this, I’ll be in the rear view mirror.” The song continues to describe an impending breakup, but even so, Sara admits all the dreams she has for their relationship. Sara wrote it about her boyfriend Joe Tippett (luckily, the breakup didn’t actually happen), describing the song as “a daydreamer’s lament about someone who couldn’t in that moment step into love.” Sara co-wrote it with Justin Tranter. “Poetry By Dead Men” has a beautiful, light air about it even as it tackles such honest feelings. It’s another highlight on Amidst The Chaos.
“Someone Who Loves Me” – Sara dives back into the gentle, earthy sounds on “Someone Who Loves Me”. The lyrics described Sara being in a troubled mental space, filled with sorrow and anxiety, but comforted in knowing that a loved one is there to help her through it. As Sara described in an interview with WBUR’s Here & Now, “Someone Who Loves Me” is about her relationship with depression and anxiety and allowing someone else to see her in her darkest hour. That’s an important aspect of love, and she captures it beautifully here.
“Saint Honesty” – Sara shared “Saint Honesty” as the last promo single before the album dropped. She’s identified it as her favorite song on the record, and revealed that she and the band recorded the whole track together live in one take – a first for her! Sara co-wrote it with Lori McKenna. “Saint Honesty” paints an image of a house during a storm, open windows allowing the rain to ruin what’s inside. But this metaphor illuminates an important lesson to learn how to be open and honest with a loved one, even if it’s difficult. In the end, it will make the relationship stronger.
“A Safe Place To Land” (feat. John Legend) – Amidst The Chaos closes with a beautiful ballad sung with John Legend. (Sara previously worked with him on Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert last year.) Throwing basic duet conventions out the window, Sara and John trade off vocals and rejoin together fluidly, sounding more natural and honest in so doing. They sing about the immigrant family separation crisis currently happening along the US-Mexico border. Sara and John offer love and a helping hand to these refugees in need. It’s an effort to be light in this time of darkness. It’s a gorgeous song with an important message. “A Safe Place To Land” is a perfect way to close the sweeping, honest album.
Amidst The Chaos Score: 5/5
Highlights on Amidst The Chaos include: “No Such Thing,” “Miss Simone,” “Wicked Love,” “Orpheus,” “Poetry By Dead Men,” and “Someone Who Loves Me.”
You can stream or buy Amidst The Chaos at all the major music providers here.