Alessia Cara Grapples With Millennial Anxieties on ‘The Pains Of Growing’

Alessia Cara introduced herself to the world, on her breakthrough 2015 single “Here,” as “an antisocial pessimist.” Angst is a rare commodity in contemporary pop R&B, and this type of comfortably contrarian posturing is downright alien. On the other hand, the topic of the song is widely relatable, regardless of musical genre. It’s about being at a lame party, with music that isn’t to your taste, nothing thrilling happening, and no adequate explanation for why everyone appears to be enjoying themselves so much. Naturally, the song stood out from the largely celebratory body of music surrounding it, and Cara found her claim to fame. Now, she’s out with her second album, aptly titled “The Pains Of Growing.” Adolescent neurosis has given way to who knows what, and the emotionally-fraught landscape is hazy. Cara tackles relationship drama, personal anxieties, and existential musings with an uncommon candor, and ultimately comes across rather more sanguine than her self-description would lead you to believe.   

Opener and lead single “Growing Pains” begins with strings abruptly bent out of tune, whereupon a voice admonishes, “You’re on your own kid.” Production and songwriting duo Pop & Oak, regular collaborators with Cara, start things off with a bang. There’s an EDM drop and then a blockbuster of a pop chorus. Cara immediately sings with command, over painstakingly treated backing vocals. She repeats, “No band-aids for the growing pains,” but over a hearty chorus of “Oh yeah, yeah,” which imparts considerable levity. The bittersweet “Not Today,” one of the overall strongest tunes, continues in this vein. The lyrics feature a litany of confident declarations, each starting with the word “Someday,” then starkly culminating in the titular line. A judicious use of studio tinkering lets the song really pack a punch.

“I Don’t Want To” changes up the energy, foregoing the bombast for a minimal arrangement of primarily acoustic guitar, which gives it echoes of “Educated Guess”-era Ani diFranco, except without the obliqueness. One of three self-produced tracks on the new record, it derives much of its power for its no-frills, uncluttered instrumentation. “7 Days” shifts gears for another sweeping number. Cara evokes the Biblical creation myth, and addresses its god directly in the lyrics, decrying the current, general state of the world, and entreating, “Please say it was worth the seven days.” In her platitudinal ramblings, she addresses the likes of insipid celebrities, superficiality, and prejudice, and wryly offers as consolation, “At least the bubble that we’ve created could make for some good TV.”

“Trust My Lonely,” the second single, bares a heavy reggae influence, and some rather quirky production, taking bold liberties with clipped, syncopated percussion, in a similar way, rather curiously, as Dirty Projectors did on their 2017 self-titled album. Cara upholds her “antisocial” persona here, singing, “Don’t you know you’re no good for me? / I gotta trust my lonely.” “Wherever I Live” is another of the more rustic, stripped-down cuts peppered throughout the album. It’s worth mentioning that the artful sequencing of tracks makes for a notably dynamic recording. This track, while winsomely unassuming, could perhaps afford a little more ornamentation. The unengaging, laughably simplistic guitar work on songs like this and “I Don’t Want To” just seems lazy. On the other hand, Cara doesn’t seem like the type to be taken with smoke and mirrors. On another vignette, “A Little More,” she at least varies her strumming, and matches it with inflections that are more folk, in spirit, than R&B.

Tracks like “Comfortable” mimic the Motown sound, and showcase Cara so in her element that the songs sound convincingly classic upon first listen. In this context, she begs comparison with Amy Winehouse — and while most would agree she lacks Winehouse’s flair and mystique, she does have the requisite singing chops and stylistic fluidity. On “Nintendo Games,” she muses over the peculiar nature of love, much as she mused over the nature of the world on “7 Days.” In limbo, she reflects, “we could grow up, but it’s no fun that way.” She goes on to betray an unprecedented vulnerability on “Out of Love,” with lyrics that are even more personal, honest, and direct than her standard fare. Cara totally wears her heart on her sleeve, and her artistic integrity is inspiring, even if her content is maudlin.

The final cluster of songs on “The Pains Of Growing” functions to give the rather tumultuous record a sense of resolution. “Girl Next Door” is essentially an assertion of self esteem, one  reiterated on “Easier Said.” Altogether, the album seems to demonstrate a psychic progression, culminating in a resounding message of self-confidence and resilience. “Growing Pains (Reprise,)” a succinct, vaguely James Blake-esque afterthought, makes for an elegant closer, tying together an exceptionally cohesive set of songs. There are abounding cliches and scant Eureka moments, but Cara impresses with compassion, versatility, and masterful execution.  

The Pains Of Growing” is available Nov. 29 on Apple Music.