The bass line sets the tone for this song. Undertow starts with a walking bass line groove that’s so expressive, it’s as if it were a person at a party, telling all the fun stories and working the room. The song continues to build instrument by instrument, but there’s no real melody here that one can sing along too. Each instrument seems to be doing its own thing, but musically it all works like one big basement blues jam session. Upon first listen this was not one of my favorite songs on the record. The use of cliche’s in the verses seemed out of place in the otherwise poetic cadence of Sara’s lyrics. However, the lyric in the chorus, “My heart breaks… in a… heartbeat” is particularly nice, and the song grew on me after a few more spins. Undertow’s magic is the sheer effortless of the entire song. It plays like Sara and her band are performing the song live, and while I may not be able to sing along with Sara’s fluid vocals, I really don’t care because the energy Sara exhudes in the song makes up for it.
If Sara’s music ever gets worked into a Broadway musical, (I can see in lights now… “Now at the historic Booth theatre!, “Between the Lines”, a new jukebox musical featuring the songs of Sara Bareilles!”) Undertow would be sung by our heroine in the middle of Act I when she tries to gain the eye of someone she clearly can’t have, or he is, at least disinterested in her beyond the “let’s have a good time” phase. This song is tailored made to be sung as a duet. Our heroine starts, sitting on a couch stage left. Her friend, (let’s call her Mary) who is slightly older, but not by much, is getting a beer from the fridge. Our heroine sings verse one and the chorus, while Mary comes in with verse two, trying to give stern advice. The heroine cuts her off and finishes the verse and they both sing harmony and trade off verse three with playful banter as they fight for the tv remote. End scene. Applause ensues.
The surprise of Undertow is at end of the song—the false ending. Sara lets the song be silent for a couple beats before starting back again. I’d say this new added section is the music effected by the undertow. The entire song leads up to this moment and the metaphor is clear: It’s separated from the rest. It’s moving on. Whether we want it to or not.
Side note trivia: In 2004, she appeared as a singer in a bar in the indie film Girl Play. In the movie she performs the song “Undertow”. Now, go impress your friends at the next company party.
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