Truly ambitious and passionate songwriters eventually forge their own paths to success, even if it takes years. While lesser creatives are still wading in the oceans of semi-obscurity, these artists write music as part of a catharsis, transforming their feelings into music. Each album or song is a representation of themselves. Artists like Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan pumped out hits so quickly because they were doing what they loved.
The same is true with singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. Best known for her wholesome 2007 hit “Love Song,” her brand new album, “Amidst the Chaos” was released last Friday as the follow-up to 2015’s instant classic broadway musical “Waitress,” which Bareilles scored.
Bareilles has released five solo albums since 2004, each packed with surprisingly complex pop songs that now, looking back, would have also made great musicals. Her songwriting style has consistently made unexpected choices in texture with very logical chord progressions. This emphasis on the creative end of things makes each riff or harmony much more ear-catching.
While her 2013 adult-contemporary hit “Brave” could be that year’s doctor’s office pop anthem, Bareilles really found her niche with “Waitress.” Watching the success of the musical might make it seem that everything released before and after could get dwarfed by its success.
And along moseys “Amidst the Chaos,” guns blazing, ready to brawl. The album has a glowing texture from the actual acoustic instruments paired with lyrics that are vivid and relatable. The centerpiece is always Bareilles’ pleasant, vibrato-minimalistic voice that reaches out to each note with surgical precision.
It’s possible Bareilles took a long look in the mirror after the success of “Waitress” and decided it was time for a little introspection. Many tracks, like “Fire” and “If I Can’t Have You,” are curses upon all those who have wronged her in the past. The rest of the tracks are hopeful and sorrowful one-way mirrors into Bareilles’ conscience. Some song segments border on corny, like the fluttering way she harmonizes with herself on “Fire” during the climactic break. Even still, the talented songwriting shines through in the careful note placement.
Like most good pop music, “Amidst the Chaos” places great emphasis on groovy beats that would be great to scat over. The only track to feature obvious electronic beats is “No Such Thing,” and it compensates for the fact with plucky stereo instrumentation and carefully selected oddities, such as a nylon-stringed guitar being played like a harp.
This experimentation is not at all a veil to hide unoriginal songwriting. Although it isn’t nearly as complex as in “Waitress,” “No Such Thing,” like many tracks on “Amidst the Chaos,” focuses on the loving intensity of Bareilles’ voice. The vocal line stays alive with bursts of one-liners soulfully delivered and carried by flair-full verses.
The piano reaches new heights of utility on many tracks, including “Armor,” which begins with a very Vince Guaraldi-esque swinging piano bassline that tackles the beat with a writhing intensity. “Only the little boys tell you they’re a big man,” Bareilles spits. While themes of female oppression aren’t found much elsewhere on the album, the attitude with which she delivers lines like these is representative of the passion that penetrates the rest of the album.
Now that Bareilles has chiseled her way out of one-hit-wonder obscurity and into stardom, it seems like she’s finally feeling the eerie warmth from hundreds of thousands of fans breathing down her neck. “Amidst the Chaos” is a reaction to the wild and often wicked ways society can be. Perhaps her next album will be her coming to terms with the ways of the world.