No one can say they haven’t gotten a Sara Bareilles tune lodged between their ears at some point or another.
Sara Bareilles has been busier than usual. Over the past two years she’s written and released Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song, a memoir comprised of photos and essays spanning her entire career. She’s written the music and lyrics for the upcoming Broadway musical Waitress, based on the 2007 film of the same name. And, as if that weren’t enough, she’s reimagined and recorded 12 of those Waitress songs for her fifth LP, What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress. Quite the prolific period indeed for the best-selling singer/songwriter.
What’s Inside is as delightful and uplifting as any of Bareilles’ previous releases. Her piano-driven pop rock and her ability to craft an infectious hook is nothing short of masterful. Love her, like her, whatever, no one can say they haven’t gotten a Sara Bareilles tune lodged between their ears at some point or another. Granted, catchiness alone does not a good song make, but that’s the thing: Bareilles makes great songs—catchy, fun, poignant, beautiful—and What’s Inside is no exception. The difference here is, instead of giving listeners a window through which they can get a glimpse of how she ticks, she sings of the inner-workings of fictional characters, which is as intriguing as it is jarring.
The album begins with “What’s Inside,” a quiet little tune that takes the title in two directions: what goes into the confections the protagonist bakes and what her character is made of. It’s short, beautiful and cements itself as essential connective tissue with its chorus of “Sugar, butter, flour.” Not only does that line make a return several times later, but it proves to be the thread that tethers the album together. What’s Inside is more than a typical Sara Bareilles record and it’s more than a collection of selected songs from a soundtrack. It’s a concept record. And who doesn’t enjoy some good old fashioned forethought when listening to an album end to end?
“Opening Up” bursts out of the quiet conclusion of the first track. Piano-driven and bouncy, it’s Bareilles doing what she does best: entertaining while tugging on heartstrings. A song about the tedium of a work-a-day diner-life that a1so puts the protagonist’s personality on display. It’s a fun and endearing romp replete with a two-step beat and layers of vocally gifted sugar that weave between thematic boredom and never wanting anything to change. Certainly a highlight of the record but, truthfully, there is something missing.
“Door Number Three” and “When He Sees Me” keep the bright and cheery musical vibe with the piano front and center. The tracks delve more deeply into the idiosyncrasies of the protagonist while Bareilles breathes life into the fears of meeting the right person, or choosing the right path in life with a voice that only gets more and more impressive with each release. But, again, there’s a piece of the puzzle missing. While Bareilles makes these characters whole, the characters aren’t affording her much of a matching presence. We’ve all heard these sorts of stories before: A character is uncertain of their station in life until someone walks in and shakes things up, but then, in the end, they find value in the life they once felt was plagued with normalcy. It’s not a bad story. But it’s just been done before. And, unfortunately, for someone whose music is so tied into her personality, despite the presence of the elementary particles, there is an essential strand of DNA missing.
Even ballads like “Soft Place to Land,” “You Matter to Me” and “She Used to Be Mine,” for all of their emotional weight and staggering beauty, can’t quite live up to their counterparts on Kaleidoscope Heart (2010) or The Blessed Unrest (2013). No matter the talent level or the songwriting prowess, the essential wholeness of a great artist is their heart and soul. While What’s Inside sounds and feels familiar, it’s not the same. It doesn’t feel complete.
As far as concept records or pseudo-soundtracks go, What’s Inside works very well. From start to finish there is a narrative thread that is easy to follow and a set of characters with their own distinct voices (the guest spots by Jason Mraz on “Bad Idea” and “You Matter to Me” help with that task). Despite Bareilles’ voice becoming more and more impressive as time goes on, and her song structures becoming a tad more complex and quite a bit less predictable, there’s a vital Sara Bareilles-ness that’s missing. While it’s clear that just as much time and effort went into this release as any of her others, it feels more like an appetizer than a main course—like there’s a secret record awaiting release once this thing runs its course. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Which is fine. If fans need to use this to hold them over until next time, it’s perfectly suitable for doing the job. But beyond that, once the initial rush of the first listen subsides, there’s not much left to go back to save for Bareilles’ older, better albums.