Artist: Sara Bareilles
Album: Once Upon Another Time
Format: Physical and download EP
Sara Bareilles is a funny popstar. I don’t just mean in the sense that she’s pitched somewhere between the self-conscious alt-ness of Amanda Palmer and (unfortunately) the corporate advertising soundtrack of Daniel Powter, I mean she’s funny ha-ha. Being a popstar that plays a piano is kind of difficult- you can’t stand, legs akimbo, head back, hammering at a baby grand that’s got an unfortunate connotation of not quite being a pop instrument, despite this being patently untrue if even slightly scrutinised.
Pianos are, perhaps, a little bit twee. I’m not exactly sure why- say what you want about Elton John or Meatloaf but they’re not twee- and maybe the self-consciousness of having to sit at this big thing on stage, unable to move too much, means you have to learn to be funny to hold people’s attention, less theatre to cover any drops in the show. I don’t know if Sara Bareilles does much patter between songs (I know she gets up from the piano a fair bit) but she has a wry wittiness to her, something a little in the vein of a less-exhausted Aimee Mann and since 2007’s Little Voice album (probably best described as ‘targetedly charming’) she’s been getting just a little bit bitter.
The Sara of Little Voice was feisty, sure but she also had quite a lot of energy for all that in-your-face protesting about love songs. By the time she returned for Kaleidoscope Heart something seemed to be souring her relationship with her career. From the declaration that she wasn’t going to write any love songs on demand to so many things I’d say if only I were able/but I just keep quiet and count the cars that pass by -as is such a consistent story, success was souring things.
A series of significant events have happened, though, since her last LP. Just after she played at the Indiana State Fair in 2011, the stage collapsed, killing seven people. Then she went to volunteer in the wake of the catastrophic tsunami in Japan. While it’s probably a bit too tempting to play cod psychologist, it feels like too much of a coincidence that the events coincided with Sara producing a considered, spacious EP of long-dark-night-of-the-soul fairytales and pointed songs. Working with Ben Folds, who she judged The Sing-Off with over the Kaleidoscope Heart period, she’s crafted a difficult-in-places set of five angry, heartbroken songs.
Once Upon Another Time opens with the eponymous track, a haunting wind through a derelict Disney musical-
Opening with such an incredibly slow track, melodic but free of refrain and rambling, is a fairly bold move. While the success of James Blake and return of Fiona Apple showcase a certain amount of popular enthusiasm for songs with a sense of distance and space, it’s not a catchy opener but it is a starkly beautiful one and one that gets better in the re-listening, that harmonic crescendo a little more acute each time.
The baffling thing about it, though is that the next track on the EP and actual lead single from it is Stay, a song it could hardly be imagined was less engineered for the post-Adele, if-you-like-Kelly-Clarkson-you-might-also-like-this market. I for one love both Adele and Kelly Clarkson, however I have no particular need to hear Sara Bareilles deliver a washed-out version of either, especially after she’s just painted such such bold strokes across the start of the record.
Fortunately, whoever was in charge of that managed not to be too far involved with the rest of the EP or at least, it’s immediately followed by a song so spectacularly beautiful, so thrumming with quiet, wise, heartbreak and bitter mouthfuls of rage that I spent two weeks listening to absolutely nothing else.
The sense of space and timing of the first track and the clinging, cloying obsession of the second meet in an almost unearthly dissection, acutely painful to listen to and yet filled with softening tiredness. The swell of the chorus, angry and active, is the sort of thing it’s horrifying to imagine ever having directed at yourself- Sara’s controlled rage and soft vocals belie the creeping rage of the instrumentation to enormous gothic effect.
From the utterly sublime to the jauntily sweary, ‘Sweet As Whole’ is more from the Tina Fey school of not being too hard on yourself about stuff; I sit and I smile while reminding you all that mean songs are still better than going postal and Sara plays the ‘I bet no one expected me to swear all over the chorus’ card to decent effect. The lyrical play is clever and the song is as relatable as it intends to be but one of the unfortunate aspects of the EP format is that songs like this end up too close to songs like ‘Lie To Me,’ which does them no favours.
Final track ‘Bright Lights and Cityscapes’ is another space-y ballad, stripped back to the barest bones. Beautiful and classical, unlike the rest of the EP it never elevates- the only slight nod towards a swell or build is some ghostly backing in the last few seconds; no crescendo, no chorus. It’s an odd way to end a mixed bag of an EP and although haunting, it has none of the lasting power of the earlier tracks and the lyrics, unfortunately sometimes swallowed in vocal swoops, aren’t up to the best here.
It’s hard to judge an artist on an EP- saying it has one astounding track and several rather good ones is a pretty good showing over five tracks. The question of which of the elements (if not all of them) Sara takes forward from here to her next LP is probably the biggest one raised but it’s certainly rather nice to have the prospect of a clever, grown-up album of mild melancholy pencilled in for some time this year.