Monday, December 3, 2018

album review: 'the pains of growing' by alessia cara

I can't help but find it a bit strange that going into this review, I was rooting for Alessia Cara.

And let me make this clear, I've been at least trying to be on her side since 2015 and the influx of Lorde-wannabes in which she came up - I'd certainly prefer her to Halsey or Daya, that's for damn sure. But Alessia Cara's success has frustrated me, because as much as I liked her breakthrough single 'Here' and her follow-up 'Wild Things', I had the sinking feeling that given the success of 'Scars To Your Beautiful' and her feature on Logic's suicide hotline song, that would be the direction Def Jam would shove her in. Yes, she had won the Grammy for Best New Artist off those singles, but that award can be the kiss of death for a lot of new acts, and poor management has destroyed more promising pop artists than bad albums. 

And I can't stress how much I didn't want that to happen, because I've always been convinced that Alessia Cara was a more interesting and vibrant personality and songwriter than just churning out self-esteem anthem pablum, and given how rushed Know-It-All felt, I had to hope that her follow-up would show more refinement, especially as her competition had gotten stiffer with Lorde's resurgence and the striking rise of Billie Eilish. Yeah, I'd still prefer to listen to Alessia Cara than Camila Cabello or Halsey or especially Bebe Rexha, but this project had to stick the landing. And by all accounts it could - Alessia Cara had taken a much bigger writing and production role with her sophomore album with no guest stars, and major labels don't tend to offer that freedom unless they've got faith in the release... or are looking to cut their losses by keeping the team and budget as small as possible. And I didn't think it was the latter case here - Know-It-All had moved a lot of units on the back of Alessia Cara's writing - but I was cautious about The Pains Of Growing, so what did we get?

So this is a bit of a weird listen, the sort of album that whenever I think I don't have much to say, something new seems to slide into the picture... but whenever it seems like there's more going on, it doesn't quite showcase as much depth as I was hoping. The easiest way to describe it would be transitional, but what feels more accurate is that Alessia Cara made an album would have been right at home in the organic-leaning adult alternative acts of the mid-2000s: lyrics that aim for a bit more nuance but still feel very much approachable, a vocal timbre that's not as polished as pop but fits for the content, even some of the flourishes of retro-jazz and soul. It sure as hell doesn't fit with the rest of the mainstream pop scene now and definitely places Alessia Cara in her own lane... but at the same time, as someone who is familiar with that material, I can also tell Alessia Cara's got a ways to go before she really sticks the landing for me.

And a big part of this is how The Pains Of Growing feels split between that classier, more tasteful adult-alternative lane and mainstream pop, and I think we have to start with Alessia Cara herself. And look, it's impossible to ignore that with her huskier tone, she's never really had the intensity and fine control of a Lorde or Billie Eilish, and that's before you factor in a delivery that can still feel very youthful and exuberant. She's got organic charisma and she doesn't need to rely on synthetic vocal embellishments, that's for sure, but I'd put part of her base appeal is that delivery balanced with writing that aimed to bring more detail and flair between the lines. And given that balance is often best achieved with organic production that feels a little older and more tasteful, we run into where this project can feel the most immediately compromised. And yes, I know that it's at least partially intentional - this is an album thematically about being in transition to adulthood and finding one's footing and comfort with emotions - but while I would argue the production as a whole is more consistent, it can still feel more colourless and scattered than it should, especially given that there are tones and timbres she approached coming off of Know-It-All that are refined here and sound a lot better! And you can be forgiven for not noticing it immediately, mostly because the songs all feel pretty short and at some points run together, but when it first started to click was the mostly acoustic 'Wherever I Live' - it's barebones, and while the vocal punch-ins are a little too obvious, indicative of production that could have easily used a final draft to polish things up, but the level of mundane detail fits for the smaller scope. Hell, with the warmer tones around 'A Little More', it almost could feel like an indie pop cut or a demo from Colbie Caillat. And if you're paying attention to the melodies, the influences do shine through - the main piano line behind 'Out Of Love' is definitely throwing sidelong glances at 'Dog Days Are Over', for example. And then there's 'Comfortable', where Alessia Cara is doubling down on her Amy Winehouse worship and while she's got nowhere close to the edge to nail it, with the spiky electric guitar and more developed bass and horns, she's definitely in the right territory - of course it helps that it's produced by No I.D., but again, it's the right path.

But here's the problem: even if her writing is aiming higher, it's still from a younger vantage point and her delivery doesn't quite have the depths of soul that she needs just yet, so I get why for about half the album she goes more for pop than adult alternative or soul - and the problem is that the pop is just nowhere near as interesting or consistent. A huge part of this is the production - as I said, it's not as distracting because it doesn't feel as rushed and slapdash, but the percussion is still way too heavy and it drives good melodies to the background. At its worst it's hard to ignore the blocky scratch of the bass on 'Trust My Lonely' is swamping out the mix or how despite having some live drums they still dropped a lumpy beat onto 'Girl Next Door' that could easily just rely on its guitar arrangement, but take a song like 'All We Know', which could sound just find if that guitar lead wasn't pressed into blurry mush. And that's before you get songs like 'My Kind' with its watery desaturation and ascending backing vocals or the groaning tones behind 'Easier Said' or the bassy click that I wish let more of that soulful arranged melody through on 'Not Today'. Hell, even though '7 Days' is chasing a glassy set of tones, there's some welcome guitar snarl that I'd sure as hell prefer over a mix oversaturated in bass - same with 'Nintendo Game' and its half-hearted stabs at chiptune. And that's before I talk about the vocal layering which really could have used a second look on a fair few songs and I circle back on the thought that the production seems to actively suck away melodic tones that could be more colourful and interesting in order to serve a desaturated sound that just doesn't give Alessia Cara much to work with. And while I'm placing the majority of the blame with Pop & Oak and Ricky Reed who have inflicted this same production on a lot of mainstream pop artists, it's somehow worse here because I don't see Alessia Cara staying in mainstream pop! And sure, I might get greedy and say I'd love to hear a whole project coproduced by No I.D., but from the few more minimal notes we get from her, I think Alessia Cara has a good enough ear where she could credibly produce this on her own!

Of course, for even as much as I'm praising her, we do have to circle back to the writing and a very frank admission: Alessia Cara is at her best with detail, because without a lot of melody the songs can get pretty boring and flavourless without it. Of course, when she has good tunes like on 'Comfortable' and 'A Little More' and 'Out Of Love' she can do them justice, but where her writing stands out the most are on songs like '7 Days' - a little overstuffed as she calls out God for the chaos down below, but there's something wry and sardonic about highlighting how according to Genesis it only took seven days... and the relative rushed effort shows, especially as one of those days was rest! And I like the benign, lonely hotel details on 'Wherever I Live' and the few video game references we get on the messy toxic relationship of 'Nintendo Game' - not sure they quite connect on 'My Kind', but the thought is there. And thematically I like that the album holds together a little better - yes, the breakup arc can feel a little overdone, but the album is more about accepting the pain, the loneliness, and the lack of clear and easy answers that come with growing up. And I like the sentiments that show up across 'Easier Said' and 'Growing Pains', not only the uncertainty that comes with her digging into this territory and possibly overthinking it, but also how whatever it might be, it'll take time. And more to the point, there's not really an obvious pop move on this album - there's no blatant self-esteem anthem, the love songs are wordy and trying for more, and while I'd struggle to say that any of this is all that deep, it's going for different territory...

And this is the big frustration with The Pains Of Growing, because when Alessia Cara is allowed to show off more flair and personality and not just make desaturated, percussion-heavy pop, she shines, plain and simple. And there's a part of me that feels she shouldn't be on a major label at all if you're not going to give her production that suits her style of writing, but what's exasperating is that there's a market for the music Alessia Cara is making her and will make going forward: look at the success of Adele, who was around this age when she was putting out 'Chasing Pavements', there's a sustainable marketplace for the sort of literate adult alternative that I can see Alessia Cara making, and a lot more longevity. The issue I'm seeing is that she's going in that direction pretty much on her own and she is still young, and I'm not seeing Def Jam provide the right kind of label support, which is why The Pains Of Growing isn't as good as it should be. For me, it's a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but again, I think Alessia Cara's potential needs to be better directed. I'm still supporting her... but man, this should be better than it is.

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