Alessia Cara is at odds with herself on her sophomore album, The Pains of Growing. Following the meteoric rise of debut single “Here” — a murky and moody loner-anthem that caught everyone by surprise in 2015 — Cara released her first album, Know-It-All, which gave further insight into her teenager-perspective on societal expectations and beauty standards. Cara seemed to be walking down a similar path as that which her contemporary, Taylor Swift, had previously been on. But she ultimately shied away from getting too personal. Now that she’s three years older, though, one might expect that Cara would give us a better understanding of who she is, and what she’s experienced since her rise to stardom — especially considering her new album’s title. But instead, what we’re presented with is an overstuffed effort that struggles to find a cohesive theme.
First single “Growing Pains” did little for the album’s launch; it barely charted, and offers throwaway lines like “And I guess the bad can get better / Gotta be wrong before it’s right.” It seems as if co-writers Cara, Andrew Wansel, and Warren Felder were more interested in crafting a catchy hook — though this one skews more adult contemporary than pop — than in fleshing-out the title theme of the song. In fact, the details which made a song like “Here” so relatable and honest are generally replaced with an array of cliches on this album (one song is even titled “Easier Said,” with a chorus that’s actually what you’re thinking right now). The same team responsible for “Growing Pains” is also responsible for The Pains of Growing’s second single, “Trust My Lonely,” and although that song at least exudes more of Cara’s personality, it’s still weighed-down by some dubious production choices (like the busy video game-sounding effects during the verses) and a childish melody that sounds tailored to the needs of one of those much younger starlets that Disney forces into music careers. It’s beneath Cara’s talent, vocally, and relies on its quirks to compensate for how blatantly boring it is.
One might expect that Cara would give us a better understanding of who she is, and what she’s experienced since her rise to stardom — especially considering her new album’s title.
But both these singles may well represent Cara’s compromise with her label; they seem out of place on The Pains of Growing, or at the very least they’re more generic than the kind of songs we’ve come to expect from Cara. Thankfully, album tracks like “I Don’t Want To,” “Wherever I Live,” and “Out of Love,” bring this artist’s true talents as a songwriter to the forefront. The first two were penned solely by Cara, while the third has a second credited songwriter (Richard Nowels Jr.). Each discuss very intimate feelings: the post-breakup recovery phase, the difficulties of traveling all the time, and the moment you realize someone has fallen out of love with you. They evoke a longing, the feeling of being uncomfortable in your own space, and the disappointment of being unable to hold someone’s interest. Cara comes off here more honest and open than she has on any of her previous work, and one can’t help but wonder if this impression might’ve prevailed without all the major label pressure. This more emotionally engaged music certainly shows Alessia Cara at her best — and I suspect that she knows that. The Pains of Growing is riddled with sameness — snare drums, busy background sound effects, and too-vague lyrics — plays down Cara’s best work (“I Don’t Want To” and “Out of Love”), and, in the process, turns an interesting artist into little more than an archetypal pop singer-songwriter.