In 2015, as a teenager, Alessia Cara released her debut album, “Know-It-All,” a sleeper hit, which would lead to a Best New Artist Grammy-win three years later.
The record ranged from somewhat retro singer/songwriter tracks to positive message songs like "Scars," while “Stay,” Cara’s collaboration with Zedd, fit squarely into modern dance-pop. Diversity in sound is hardly a bad thing, but it can make it difficult to predict what’s coming next. It does create the distinct chance that even Cara, who has a pleasant, if not otherworldly, pop-R&B voice and a likable public image, could have problems with a follow-up. “The Pains of Growing,” written now from the perspective of someone in her 20s, thankfully, is not a dud.
The most universal song on the album, by leaps and bounds, is the pseudo-title track, “Growing Pains.” The lead single is filled with hooks and anthemic, modern-pop production, which appeals not only to top 40 audiences, but can also reach older, more adult contemporary-leaning fans. Meanwhile, the second single from the album, “Trust My Lonely,” is a far more subdued effort, using quasi-reggae rhythms for another tale of youth and heartbreak from Cara.
It would be a bit overstated to call “The Pains of Growing” an eclectic album, but this also isn’t a collection of the same song 15 times. “I Don’t Want To” and “A Little More,” two of the three tracks produced solely by Cara on the LP, evoke the pop-folk of Colbie Caillat. The serenity of these songs suggests that Cara’s natural inclinations are toward acoustic pop, rather than her more radio-friendly hits.
The album even ventures into jazzy doo-wop with “Comfortable,” a stylistic left turn that catches the listener off-guard, a compliment even if one doesn’t end up enjoying the song.
However, “All We Know” and “Easier Said" are too somber to be club hits, but each feels like the kind of introspective ballad written by somebody fresh off listening to club music. The tracks were co-written and co-produced by the American production team, Pop & Oak. (The pair produced songs on “Know-It-All,” as well as five songs on this album, including its first two singles.)
While “Comfortable” implies retro leanings, Cara, lyrically, stands in the millennial-Gen Z zeitgeist. “7 Days,” a letter to God of sorts, decries superficiality of the Instagram era and intolerance across society, and it feels like a 22-year-old’s sentiment. The song looks to the world with new-found experience, but also with the youth that newly recognizes its flaws. “Nintendo Game,” which compares a relationship to a video game, has a wider target range, referencing “The Legend of Zelda,” which was released a decade before Cara was born. Nevertheless, it aims for a finite, specific demographic.
References, such as busted outlets and not being able to charge cell phones, separate Cara from female singer/songwriters of yesteryear, and perhaps this should be the case. While she can find fans older than she is, those who ultimately identify the most with her music are inevitably going to be her peers and those younger. And she’s writing for them.
“The Pains of Growing” is possibly not the coronation that a sophomore album can be for a young artist, but it is a charming effort that, for the appropriate audience, should hit all of the right notes. Cara is still finding her voice, but there are enough signs of promise on the album to make her worth watching.