33-year-old Sara Bareilles and her career in music exploded with one last-minute “Song” that catapulted her into the national spotlight. She’s successfully maintained her place on the charts for a few years now, even judging on one season of NBC’s The Sing Off. Now, she’s back to doing what she does best – recording her own music and putting it out there. Her fourth album, and third major label release for Epic Records, is The Blessed Unrest, a collection of twelve compositions that shows that Bareilles has indeed been up and at it working on ideas and fleshing them out, and while it doesn’t always work, she’s given us enough to savor until the era eventually draws to a close.
First single “Brave” begins on a bold note with the heavy drums of a fun. song. It was, in fact, co-written with Jack Antonoff of the group. It’s positive, uplifting and it makes a great statement to “say what you wanna say” in the face of peer pressure. That being said, it’s different for her, but it’s a risk that seems to have paid off. She likes straining that voice of hers, huh? Somebody get her a throat lozenge, please. Track two “Chasing The Sun” immediately slows down the pace and wouldn’t sound out-of-place on her last record, embracing the idea that no matter our accomplishments, we’ll always have goals to go after: “You said remember that life is not meant to be wasted/We can always be chasing the sun/So fill up your lungs and just run.” It’s cute and relatable to her audience.
There are a handful of tracks that take on some jazz elements that shine, particularly on the striking ballad “Manhattan”, which gleefully reminds me of her debut era. Like “Sun”, it’s an ode to New York City (the former name-checks Queens) and with a light horn arrangement that matches it perfectly, the pureness of the track could easily be mistaken for a pop standard of the 40’s. It’s gorgeous, one of the best songs she’s ever done. She states, “You can have Manhattan, I know it’s what you want/Bustle and the buildings, the weather in the fall,” and that her significant other can ultimately claim it “’cause I can’t have you.” Ouch. Well, she puts it pretty bluntly, but you have to give her props for the stunning song she’s created. “Little Black Dress” seems to follow that same thread to the next level, a mid-tempo song with the occasional big band feel, which appeals to the narrator’s strength and independence: “I am more than just somebody’s puppet/I can find the cord and then I’ll cut it.” You can sway to it too, perhaps in a dress of your own. It’s some nice work; both the song and the inevitable steps you’ll be twisting and turning to.
Going off of that, simplicity in both the arrangement and lyric is always welcome to me when it comes to a singer-songwriter’s album. It’s not always about the bells and whistles, and that’s proven to me on at least another two songs. The most potential second radio single, in my opinion, is the ballad “1,000 Times”. It’s a grower that could get lost in the pack, but I’m positive the label will shift the tempo with her next release, and this would be my choice. My first impression of it was a Kelly Clarkson and “Already Gone” sort of mood, but after hearing it a few times, I’m hearing shades of Jewel and Sarah McLachlan, and a familiarity of their work could lead it to do well on both Adult and Hot Adult Contemporary radio. “I Choose You” is another of the tracks that gets the job done without being overly cluttered. From the inviting strings to a bouncy beat and a bit of restraint on Bareilles’s part, she relays the words of love: “Tell the world that we finally got it alright… I will become yours and you will become mine.” It’s dripping in sweetness. I’m totally into it.
When experimenting in new territory on several songs, the results are mixed. Of the two spacey sounding tracks, I enjoy “Cassopeia”, which works for me both vocally and with a rhythmic drum beat, but “Satellite Call” falls flat with its echoey and distorted vocals. “Hercules” is another one of those, a Norah Jones sound-alike which is just rather weird. It probably sounded good in the process, but didn’t come out well in the final product. “Eden” is also pretty out there for Bareilles, which marks an adventure into electronic music, and though I don’t find it awkward, it’s so not genuine to her. It’s appreciated that she doesn’t want to stick in her comfort zone, but some of these attempts don’t complete themselves fully.
While The Blessed Unrest is certainly an enjoyable listen, it does have its share of other issues. From hearing “Brave” as both the leadoff single and leading song on the album, I would’ve expected that tone was going to be peppier, and it almost sounds out-of-place hearing the whole thing. It’s a pretty deliberate attempt at a hit and that’s fine, everybody does it, but don’t leave me hanging when it comes to the rest of the album. It’s so ballad heavy. I want energy! The sequencing is also a little off for me. “Manhattan” would have been a killer closing track. I also think “Little Black Dress” could’ve benefitted from being closer to the beginning. Instead, it has its moment, then falls off, then gets back on course and off again, etc. The overall slower vibe attributes to this, but there’s nothing we can do about that. She writes how she writes.
Lastly, I have to approach this release from a promotional perspective. By the time Kaleidoscope Heart was released in September 2010, lead single “King Of Anything” was just outside the top 5 on the Hot AC format. It was also crossing over to CHR. It enabled the album to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200. That isn’t the case this time around, as “Brave” is outside the top ten with a decreased gain in airplay and very little CHR consideration. That’s not say that this won’t bow high, but it will absolutely fall to Jay Z‘s second week for Magna Carta Holy Grail and, frustratingly, perhaps the Kidz Bop Kids. I guess they didn’t have anything better to do.
Things may change for me in a few listens, but I’m not convinced that this is best effort in her catalogue. After all, her unrest may be blessed, but that doesn’t mean I have to make up for her lack of sleep. However, it should appeal to her core audience and their craving for new music, especially on the more well-constructed songs like “I Choose You”, “Little Black Dress” and “Manhattan”. This may be a new Sara Bareilles, but as she sings, we can “hang onto the reverie” that a part of the old her is still in the heart of her latest affair.