The Blessed Unrest
Plenty of pop singer-songwriters through the decades have explored the geography of love, from its ecstasy-inspiring pinnacles to its despair-inducing depths. Sara Bareilles plays right along on her fourth effort, The Blessed Unrest, and this review will soon show which side of the emotional spectrum she prefers.
With the piano and her voice serving as her primary instruments (augmented with drum loops and some '80s-esque nods to synthesizers), Bareilles' sound brings to mind Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Emeli Sandé and even Beyoncé. What sets her apart from most of her pop-music peers, however, is the precise and unusually evocative vocabulary she employs to tell her tales of love found and lost, of her dissatisfaction with her own weaknesses at times and her desire to be a better, stronger human being.
On "Hercules," for example, Sara writes, "I miss the days my mind would just rest quiet/My imagination hadn't turned on me yet/I used to let my words wax poetic/But it melted, a puddle at my feet now/It's a calcifying crime, it's tragic/I've turned to a petrified past life of baggage/I want to disappear and just start over." I can honestly say that in the hundreds of albums I've reviewed over the years, I've never heard anyone use the word calcifying to describe the hardening of one's perspective on life and creativity. In response to that perceived lack, she offers up a nonsectarian prayer of sorts that she might become strong again: "'Cause I have sent for a warrior/From on my knees, make me a Hercules/I was meant to be a warrior, please."
"Chasing the Sun" finds Bareilles in a Brooklyn cemetery pondering, it seems, the carpe diem-infused wisdom imparted to her by a woman who's passed on: "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.'" Later, Bareilles builds on that exhortation, singing, "All we can do is try/And live like we're still alive."
Future wedding classic "I Choose You" promises a life of faithfulness and shared discovery: "My whole heart will be yours forever/This is a beautiful start to a lifelong love letter/Tell the world that we finally got it all right/I choose you, I do/I will become yours and you will become mine/I choose you, I do." "Little Black Dress," conversely, shows us a woman working through a breakup who decides that life hasn't ended, a stance that's symbolized by her wearing a favorite dress and dancing to a favorite song (at home, it would seem). She also demonstrates self-respect when she says, "I am more than just somebody's puppet/ … It's time to connect the dots and draw a different picture up/And paint it with the colors of everything I ever was."
Several melancholy tracks ("Manhattan," "Islands," "1000 Times") unpack the emotions that accompany love lost or unrequited. These songs have a somber, reflective quality, but they never dip into full-on despair or vengeful vindictiveness. "Eden" plays with the imagery of that first garden as a woman realizes in retrospect that a relationship she thought was paradise really wasn't.
"Satellite Call" imagines Bareilles as an encouraging voice on earth sending up messages to struggling youth whom she describes as isolated satellites locked in lonely orbits. "This one's for the lonely child/Brokenhearted, running wild," the song begins. Later she affirms their dignity and worth: "You may find yourself in the dead of night/Lost somewhere up in the great, big, beautiful sky/You were all just perfect little satellites/Spinning 'round and 'round this broken earthly life/This is so you'll know the sound/Of someone who loves you from the ground/Tonight you're not alone at all."
"Brave" implores a timid friend to be honest, be herself and say what she needs to say to others. But …
That positive message changes complexion when surrounded by its intended context. Though the song never explicitly mentions homosexuality, Bareilles has said it was inspired by one of her friends who was wrestling with the decision to come out as a lesbian. The gay lifestyle magazine The Advocate said of "Brave," "The song, which [Bareilles] wrote with Fun lead guitarist Jack Antonoff, is destined to become an LGBT anthem for the ages." Bareilles told the magazine, "I think there's so much honor and integrity and beauty in being able to be who you are. It's important to be brave because by doing that you also give others permission to do the same." And in a video promoting the song, Antonoff added, "I'll always internalize it as a real civil rights anthem at a time when there are no civil rights anthems and there's a giant need for [them]."
"Manhattan" moves on to employ an intoxication metaphor to describe the heady first days of promising romance. The chorus of "Cassiopeia," which pictures a new relationship as two stars colliding, could be heard as sexually suggestive: "Tonight/Come on, come on, collide/Break me to pieces, I/Think you're just like heaven/ … Let's see what a fire feels like/I bet it's just like heaven."
Sara Bareilles' gift as a songwriter lies in her quietly poetic flare for expressing both emotions and perspective. It's a mature, engaging quality that's devoid of the usual sensual, superficial or melodramatic moments that so often accompany such pop musings. Then, nestled among the album's majority of songs about romance are also some positive messages about self-respect, living life to the fullest and keeping our chins up in tough times.
As for the admirable admonition to tell tough truths on "Brave," Bareilles' lyrical advice is nonspecific enough to be easily be applied in all manner of situations. But her interview statements about it cement the meaning as one of encouraging homosexual expression.