So I’ll Know What it Feels Like: On Sara Bareilles’ plausible deniability

amidst the chaos

When Sara Bareilles announced the release of her sixth album, she promised a patchwork of love songs, breakup ballads, and hymns to the exemplary grace and decency of the Obamas. It’s that last part that suggests Amidst the Chaos as a topical affair, one that lingers over faded glories as a way of avoiding contemporary traumas, but the songs themselves are more circumspect, and better because of it. Only on the closing “A Safe Place to Land,” where Bareilles and John Legend pronounce a benediction of courage over border detainees, does the album’s currency become irrefutable. Everywhere else, plausible deniability abounds. You could listen to any one of these songs and reasonably assume it’s about romantic triumph or folly. And yet, there’s plentiful insinuation that these songs were marinated in the times; as critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes, the album’s very title is a valuable and blunt shorthand for what life feels like in America circa 2019, and if Bareilles’ songs don’t have political weariness as their object, they suggest it as their point of view. In a masterclass of subtext, implication, and poetic imagining, Bareilles bears witness to what it means to maintain a joyful countenance when a rancorous national mood sweeps into the cracks and fissures of everyday living; what hard work it is, and how necessary. Meditate, if you will, on the words of “If I Can’t Have You,” a wistful chronicle of having, losing, and choosing gratitude over regret: “If I can’t have you/ then I’ll have to find a way to get through/ Though I don’t want to/ I have to do my best to recall/ That I’m thankful that I held you at all.” She could be looking back on a lost love or an evaporated civilization; either way, who couldn’t relate? There’s also “Saint Honesty,” where Bareilles summons the better angels of candor and truth—the truth that sets captives free and clears our path through any manner of bullshit. And what about “Eyes on You,” where the world’s spinning fast and out of control, but Bareilles chooses to hold her head high and keep her eye on the prize. Make of it what you will, and apply it to whatever tribulations buffet you. Its admonishment is simple and profound: Know hope. These songs are confident in their point of view, which means they don’t have to trip over themselves to pluck references from the latest headlines; they do something more valuable by capturing the blustery weather of a tumultuous planet, acknowledging the way in which cultural turmoil bleeds into personal dislocation, and providing sanity-saving articulations of resilience.

More than any of the five albums that preceded it, Amidst the Chaos makes its case through understatement and reserve. Up to this point, Bareilles has always thrived by blowing up her Carole King troubadour roots into widescreen, Technicolor pop confections; she knows how to apply studio sheen to sturdy bones, which is how “Love Song” became ubiquitous without becoming obnoxious. But to make Amidst the Chaos she stepped outside of her comfort zone, enlisting the venerable T-Bone Burnett to produce. He surrounds Bareilles’ piano with a multitude of session pros, among them mighty drummers Jay Bellerose and Jim Keltner; bass stalwart Dennis Crouch; ax slinger Marc Ribot; soundscaper Keefus Ciancia; and Milk Carton Kid Joey Ryan on harmonies. They stick to small gestures and intimate performances, warm and largely acoustic but never austere or inert. Burnett’s reputation is as a folklorist, and he does help Bareilles trace some of her roots; she sticks to the bluesy low end of her piano on the rumbling “Armor,” writes stately gospel in “Saint Honesty,” and creates shimmering soul perfection in the gently propulsive “If I Can’t Have You,” the kind of song you’d love to hear on an album by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. But what Burnett understands is just how little polish Bareilles needs for her songs to sound colorful and epic, which many of these do: “Eyes on You” sprints toward euphoria, while the opening “Fire” stokes glowing embers into a raging chorus. Just like Bareilles’ words, the performances convey clear emotions without overselling, her dramatist’s zeal kept in check by her devotion to careful songcraft.

Blessedly, Bareilles finds space for peace within the chaos: Reprieves come in the sultry sway of “Miss Simone” and the smoky reverie “Someone Who Loves Me”—the former a scene of everyday tenderness and romance, the latter a trust fall into the arms of an unfailing partner. She allows herself to shed light on all she’s (we’ve?) lost in the twinkling melancholy of “No Such Thing,” but ultimately realizes the futility in obsessing over the past (“I can’t fix it by fixating on a rewind,” she acknowledges.) That’s not to say that the past can’t illuminate the present. Check the bellicose “Armor,” where Bareilles traces a lineage of strength and resilience that runs through all the women who’ve come before; “strength means blessed with an enemy,” she intones, her resolve forged in the fire of tribulation and emboldened by the generations that blazed her trail. And in “Orpheus,” she spins familiar lore into an allegory of perseverance. “Hold me in the dark and when the day appears/ We’ll say we did not give up on love today,” Bareilles pleads; love blooms and hope springs in the land of the dead, because where else are such things to happen? These songs are saturated in joyful intent even as they’re littered with signs o’ the times, and none strike that balance more rousingly than “Fire.” Here, Bareilles documents a love she thought would last, now reduced to ash and rubble. “Someday, I won’t have to feel the cold/ But I do now so I’ll know/ What it feels like when I feel fire,” she declares. It’s a prophetic word for anyone enduring cruel winter, but knowing in their hearts that springtime will come again. No need to spell it out further: You know exactly what it is she’s talking about.

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