It’s been 15 years since Sara Bareilles’ warm, rich vocals first melted onto the scene with her intimate debut album, “Careful Confessions,” and six long years since the release of her last full album, “The Blessed Unrest.” Now, at last, she’s back — this time with “Amidst the Chaos,” a well-crafted collection of soothing, soulful ballads, with a few feminist anthems sprinkled in. Even if it has its slightly underwhelming moments, I’m largely inclined to love “Amidst the Chaos,” because I have the sense that it is exactly the record Bareilles wanted to create. Unlike her previous four albums, this one finds the songstress lyricizing far less about uncertainty and self-doubt. Although listening to the oft-somber “Amidst the Chaos” at times makes my admittedly young self long for those more youthful Bareilles tracks of yesteryear, I also know that this record is the hopeful sign of an artist maturing and growing ever more sure of herself, even as the world around her seems anything but.
The album opens with three of its singles, the first of which is “Fire,” an effortlessly catchy ode to a romance that never really caught more than a spark. Then comes “No Such Thing,” a mournful and lovely farewell to none other than the Obamas. Similarly politically inspired is the spirited “Armor,” in which Bareilles sarcastically thanks the sexists of the world for giving her and her fellow female warriors something to fight for. The album maintains its strong start with the jazzy, upbeat tone of “If I Can’t Have You,” which cements Bareilles as the queen of throwing positive spins on even the most brutal of break-ups (case in point: 2013’s “Little Black Dress” or 2010’s “Gonna Get Over You”).
Ironically, though the album speeds up with the rock number “Eyes On You,” it also loses steam — while the verses are vaguely reminiscent of some of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest hits, the chorus suddenly lurches into punk-rock territory, and the result is tonally inconsistent and ultimately disappointing. That steam isn’t quite picked back up with “Miss Simone,” a pleasant but mildly forgettable reminiscence on a fledgling love affair.
Fear not, though, for the album rights its course with the next three tracks, all of which have been on repeat in my earbuds — and head — since I first heard them. “Wicked Love” is a glorious screw-you to a scorned lover, and it sounds like an amalgamation of some of Bareilles’ best hits and lesser-known gems: I immediately thought of 2010’s “Say You’re Sorry” and 2013’s “Cassiopeia.” The next track, “Orpheus,” serves as inspiration for the album’s title, and it is a wonderfully soft, sincere plea for a loved one to stay tethered to Bareilles even in the world’s current state. And then comes what might be my absolute favorite: “Poetry by Dead Men.” Bareilles’ voice is beautifully complimented by the track’s bright, poppy piano notes as she sings about how she let a lover go after realizing that she will never be the “girl in a white T-shirt over coffee, stirring in the cinnamon while you read me poetry by dead men.”
Sadly, even after several listens, I kept forgetting about the existence of the following track: “Someone Who Loves Me” sounds lovely, but it also lacks enough of a spark to make it stand out (who knows, maybe I’m biased because I’m single). Skipping ahead (more on that in a moment) to the final song, “A Safe Place to Land” reveals more of the same — even though Bareilles is joined by famed R&B crooner John Legend, with whom she also starred in NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” this duet never quite reaches the heights of the two’s combined vocal abilities. With lines like, “Be the light in the dark of this danger,” and “Surely someone will reach out a hand/ And show you a safe place to land,” the song leans too heavily on vague cliches to ever really, well, land.
And so, wanting this review to end on a deservedly good note, I instead saved the stunning penultimate track “Saint Honesty” — incidentally, Bareilles’ own favorite on the album — to write about last. Bareilles’ vocals soar on this impassioned prayer for honesty and truth to rain down upon the world, and the song has a gorgeously raw, unfiltered quality. It’s an incredible near-finish to an album throughout which Bareilles’ singing and songwriting prowess are, overall, about as strong as they’ve ever been. She still has my heart, even if this album is still finding its place there.
I give “Amidst the Chaos” four out of five stars.