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Alessia Cara - The Pains of Growing Music Album Reviews

The pop singer hits a soft reset on her second album, which isn’t a revelation, but it has the tinge of a project made with love and devotion.

Alessia Cara was nearly drowned by a record contract. She would have had good company down there: The music industry is a watery grave for people in her position—one hot song, a firestorm of interest, and zero leverage. After her cool-eyed hit “Here,” she disappeared almost entirely into Def Jam, like a dollar into a wind tunnel. She put out EPs with prefab songs that sounded intended for Bebe Rexha or Taylor Swift or anyone who agreed to record them. Her name and voice appeared on them, but nothing else did. It looked like “Alessia Cara,” as a fresh voice in pop music, had been thoroughly strip-mined.

She has not escaped Def Jam, but she must have convinced them to leave her alone at some point. Maybe it was her appearance on Logic’s massive hit “1-800-273-8255” that convinced them to let her breathe, or maybe it was Disney’s Moana, but her second album, The Pains of Growing, is full of pop songs that feel grounded in a perspective. The person on The Pains Of Growing isn’t the moody teenager of 2015’s “Here,” but it is, recognizably, a person, one with specific aches, lusts, and irritations. The album isn’t a revelation but it has the tinge of a project made with love and devotion, a feeling that had more or less evaporated from Cara’s music.

The production picks sounds from off the big pop song sale rack—the neat little boom and click of the drums on the single, “Not Today” comes marked down courtesy of Lorde’s “Royals,” and the clipped guitars remind you that you streamed the Haim album recently. Cara’s vocals, sleepy and warm, gaze up at an Amy Winehouse poster. But the song cocks a wry eyebrow right at you. Cara’s lyrics step through a well-worn set up (”Someday I’ll forget the day he left/But surely not today”), funny and still singular enough for her to work in a line as weird as “I’ll be acquainted with my jollities,” which sounds like it comes from the forgotten third verse of some old Christmas carol.

Another highlight, “Trust My Lonely” approaches heartbreak from the opposite side.The titular hook—the song has two, each memorable enough for its own song—is, “Don’t you know that you’re no good for me?/I gotta trust my lonely.” “I gotta trust my lonely”—the phrasing is a little maddening in a good way—part marketing slogan, part trending topic, somehow still winsome.

A few songs here feel like homework assignments done en route to arrive at a better song: “All We Know” opens with the sound of a guitar line so brazenly lifted from the xx that you could be forgiven for checking your phone to see what album is playing. The would-be anthem “7 Days” takes a game stab at media criticism, but if you don’t trip over the lyric “Oh, Mr. man upstairs,” you probably won’t make it past “Oh, the land of poor taste/The spectacle of cut and paste.” These songs are stumbles, though, not faceplants, and they mostly ring hollow because Cara herself doesn’t sound as invested in them.

She is at her most winning when she sounds like she is having fun: On “Nintendo Games,” she compares a difficult relationship to…well, Nintendo games, with this hilarious complaint: “This is taking longer than ‘Zelda.’” Then, she tells the guy she’d rather be playing “Mario Kart.” On “Wherever I Live,” she offers a dispatch from a series of shit hotels, places where she hears reruns of “Friends” playing through the wall and imagines a knocking at her door: “I’m going crazy, and this toilet’s rusted/Food came but I don’t trust it.” The song is just her voice and a guitar, the simplest music she’s made yet, and it is so endearing it tugs at your shirt sleeve to get you to love it. “Girl Next Door” has the same arrangement, and has a similar freshness. “I rock my soul on both sleeves of my t-shirt,” she declares on the hook—a little hokey, maybe, but honest and refreshing. It’s the first moment she has sounded truly free since she first got our attention.

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