Alessia Cara cleared her throat in 2015 with “Here,” an instant teen-angst classic about hating all the cool kids at the party. “I don’t daaance, don’t aaaask,” she sneered, over a slow-mo horror-show funk loop from a vintage Isaac Hayes record. (Just to add to the vibe, the “Here” sample was a staple for trip-hop cranks like Portishead and Tricky before Cara was born.) “Here” was the surprise smash that set the Toronto teen on the fast track to a Grammy for Best New Artist. On her excellent second album, The Pains of Growing, Cara really comes of age as a major voice of young-adult disenchantment. As she asks in “Easier Said,” “So what if you’re a bit bitter before you recharge?/I mean, I spend my days complaining to a guitar.” And Cara never comes close to running out of eloquent complaints.
Still only 22, Cara has grown way beyond “Here” — but she still sounds loaded with confidence, brashness and a salt mine’s worth of party-killer attitude. Her soulful voice has matured, with a touch of Billie Holiday in her upper register. Well-titled statements like “I Don’t Want To” and “Not Today” set the tone for the whole album — Cara sings her post-adolescent blues (“One day I swear the pain will be a blip. . . . I’ll be the king of misery management”) over stripped-down guitar. Cara had a uniquely strong hand in creating The Pains of Growing — she wrote or co-wrote every track on it and produced three of them herself.
She seizes the role of pop auteur, venting with a jaded wit that feels totally fresh. This girl is not here for anyone’s nonsense, and she’s not shy about letting you know. She’s got shade for the fashion world (“I rock my soul on both sleeves of my T-shirt”), her phone (“the anti-social media perpetuates the mess”), the menfolk (“Hey, Mr. Knock on My Door/I’m sorry that I’ve been emotions galore”). She even gets away with that time-honored staple of second albums, the road song about how soul-crushing it is to be trapped in hotel rooms. Except when Cara does it in “Wherever I Live,” she’s full of clever and original touches, with lines like, “I hear the laughter from the TV/Static Rachel talks to Phoebe.”
Cara re-teams with Pop and Oak, the production duo behind “Here,” on five tracks, including the single “Trust My Lonely,” where she gives herself a new-rules pep talk over a sliced-and-diced reggae skank. “Comfortable” is a trad Motown-style ballad with No I.D., and “7 Days” is a stern talking-to for “Mr. Man Upstairs,” picturing him as he watches the end-times on Earth: “Curled up on his couch right now/As we fail to figure it out/Does he turn down the sound?”
Cara sees herself as the outsider, the girl on the margins who never fits in. As she shrugs toward the end of the album, “My kind of fun doesn’t make any sense.” But all over The Pains of Growing, she’s got a style that’s all her own.