“She used to be mine” — that’s how a lot of Sara Bareilles fans probably felt, losing her to the legit stage, at least as a recording and touring artist, for the better part of five years. With “Amidst the Chaos,” her first album of non-“Waitress” songs since 2013, she’s back, but not exactly as we knew her. It’s not the theater that necessarily transformed her, though. It’s T Bone Burnett, or at least the sensibilities of her own that led her to seek out Burnett as her producer. Ironically, perhaps, for someone who just came off a series of runs starring on the Great White Way on top of writing for it, this sounds less like a collection of show tunes than any of the albums that came before she was a Broadway baby. Or if it does bear some relation to theater music, it’s small theater music: As belt-y a range as she obviously has at her command, here you rarely feel her projecting too far past the orchestra pit lip.
Maybe not surprisingly, Row AA is a pretty wonderful place to be for “Amidst the Chaos,” as Burnett and his engineers carefully place the listener amongst a busy but very un-chaotic, spare, spatially interesting setting that’s a lot more textured than any of her earlier records. Her piano — something you wouldn’t previously have thought of as an optional element — only appears on two-thirds of the 12 tracks, and when it does, it’s almost never in the upfront singer-songwriter accompaniment style of yore, but layered in, along with all the acoustic guitars and strummed mandolins and soft mallets and literal brush strokes from Burnett’s usual cast of players (including the subtlest all-star rhythm section of all time, bassist Dennis Crouch and alternating drummers Jim Keltner and Jay Bellerose). Yet her aesthetic is still too inherently dramatic to really consider this an Americana record. If this review hasn’t planted the idea too firmly in your mind, you’re going to notice just how acoustic most of it is after the fact. Her voice, even dialed down to a more even than usual keel, is electrifying enough.
What they’re up to here is a sort of becalmed, secular faith healing ritual. “Amidst the Chaos” is an album that feels so deeply medicinal, Bareilles should be credited with an M.D. after her name. Describing a record’s tranquilizing effects doesn’t usually come off as the greatest recommendation, but Bareilles has not made any secret of the fact that the album was deeply influenced by the political trauma of the last few years, and that “Chaos” is intended as a balm for fellow travelers who’ve been dealing with a little PTSD. Knowing that going in, you may wonder where all the politics is. The answer is that, apart from the boldly and blatantly feminist “Armor,” it’s latent. The gentle soul ballads “No Such Thing” and “If I Can’t Have You” may leave you wondering how Bareilles can suddenly write such profoundly fond breakup songs — until you hear her explain, off record, that these bittersweet laments are really about breaking up with the Obamas, and the civilized climate that came and went with them. It doesn’t take as much explication to realize that the album’s closing duet with John Legend (the TV Jesus to her Mary Magdalene), “A Safe Place to Land,” is her hymn offering hope to desperate immigrants. The album is maybe less topical beyond those songs, but when Bareilles sings its tenderest, most moving love song and titles it “Orpheus,” it’s not a stretch to figure out that the setting is our very own underworld.
Romantic love doesn’t just make a cameo appearance here, and you’d be right to guess she was falling in it even as she was having headline-induced anxiety attacks. “Miss Simone” isn’t about the politics of anything other than keeping a burgeoning love affair on the down low and turning up the Nina. And she gets in a couple of breakup songs that aren’t about Barack, including “Poetry by Dead Men,” which, as a now-or-never declaration of intent to a deadbeat lover, does come off as a solid, theater-worthy 11:00 number, come to think of it. Lower-key highlights are plentiful, and one clear one is the album’s slowest and most firmly R&B number, “Saint Honesty,” a celebration of the sacredness and healing power of tough-love truth. But the masterpiece is “Armor,” the one cut that’s truly piano-driven, albeit on the very lowest end of the keyboard (and as such, “my homage to Tori Amos,” she told Variety). Its smart, snappy, Women’s March-inspired declaration that the future is femme will make you intensely proud to be a woman, even if you aren’t. The whole record establishes that there’s no one in contemporary pop better at flexing mezzo-soprano sensitivity and social empathy like a muscle. It’s the perfect album for anyone who could use a little fierce snowflake pride.
“Amidst the Chaos”
Producer: T Bone Burnett. Songwriters: Bareilles, Justin Tranter, Emily King, Aaron Sterling, Lori McKenna. Guest vocalist: John Legend. Musicians: Bareilles, Jim Keltner, Mike Piersante, Dennis Crouch, Blake Mills, Patrick Warren, Jay Bellerose, Marc Ribot, Keefus Clancia, Gabriel Johnson, Philip Khronengold, Zachary Dawes, King, Burnett, Joseph Ryan