Let’s be honest: it can be very difficult to create a pop album that the critics actually like—more difficult than people realize. The reason, I believe, is that pop music almost by definition (at least these days) stays near the surface of human emotion, turning its energy mainly to singable hooks and/or danceable beats and the stuff that will make it—well—popular. And the fact is, most music critics are looking for more than that.
With her semi-quirky piano driven style, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles has spent much of her public career skirting the line between the indie-influenced female songstress vibe and the mainstream popstar—and with The Blessed Unrest, she takes what many might consider a huge risk by jumping headlong into the latter vein. This move alone could set her into the crosshairs of many a critic, but in my own opinion, Bareilles has actually crafted a record that in many ways embodies what pop music really ought to be.
Thoughtful, insightful lyricism. Strong, tasteful arrangements that fill out the piano foundation with current sounds, but without sounding trendy. Unexpected melodic turns. Genuine emotion (as opposed to twee sentiment). And yes, hooks—lots of hooks. Sarah Bareilles has done what some might deem impossible in this day and age: she’s created a pop album with depth.
Many will already be familiar with the catchy, uplifting lead track “Brave”, since it’s already a charting hit; but don’t let that song fool you into thinking this is a feel-good album. In reality, this is a record that probes a wide range of emotions, numerous times leaning strongly toward the melancholy. Never is this more apparent than in “Manhattan,” a sad, classy, jazzy, breakup number that would be equally at home on a Broadway stage at the end of the second act, or in a lounge at 2:00 a.m. In her Spotify commentary, Bareilles says she couldn’t sing at the end because she was crying, and you can hear her voice break on the last line. The sentimentality continues with tunes like “1000 Times”, a song about unrequited love, and the ethereal “Satellite Call,” which Bareilles describes as “a love song to the lonely.” There are a few breaks in the clouds; “Little Black Dress” is about trying to cheer up and get back into the game after a breakup, and “I Choose You” talks about love gone right. But apart from these brighter spots, the pop sensibilities themselves serve as a sort of counter-weight, keeping The Blessed Unrest anchored so that melancholy doesn’t dive into depression.
So here’s what I love about the album: it isn’t so much about being sad as much as it is about being real. While moving deeper into pop territory style-wise, Bareilles has retained her singer-songwriter sensibilities; she’s just brought them into a different field. By the same token, she doesn’t always color within the lines musically, either. The presence of tunes like “Hercules” and “Cassiopeia” remind us of her ability to explore her quirkier musical side, serving to break the monotony.
And it’s just this quality about Sara Bareilles—her ability to create a pop record without compromising her song craft or her depth—that I believe makes this a brilliant move for her. While The Blessed Unrest as an album lacks some of the sparkle that would put it into master-work territory, the very fact that Bareilles made this kind of record takes her out of the morass of soon-to-be-forgotten pop mediocrity, and puts her on the playing field with the likes of timeless pop songwriters like Carly Simon or Carole King. She’s not there quite yet, but if she keeps this up, with the next album she very well could be.