The first time I Googled Alessia Cara, I was shocked to see the year 1996 on my laptop screen. In addition to having two first names, being Canadian and already scoring a sleeper hit in her maple-leafed homeland, Cara is only 19 years old. I say “only” because I am also 19, and like Cara, I’m straddling the wobbly boundary between youth and adulthood, and sometimes I like to write about it. But unlike Cara, I can’t sing about it; I don’t have a voice like liquid silver, like silk hanging out the window on a cool, breezy night. She does, though. And if I gleaned anything from Know-It-All, Ms. Cara’s excellent debut album, it’s that more people should be listening to her voice.
“Here” is the aforementioned smash, the second tune off the album and easily its best work. So far it has peaked at #20 in Canada and #13 in the U.S., and rightfully so: it toys with the (admittedly relatable) subject of not wanting to be at a party anymore, getting bored with the do-you-have-a-boyfriend cajoles, all on top of piano-infused R&B sounds. We get the summit of Cara’s sardonic lyrics: “So holla at me I’ll be in the car when you’re done / I’m standoffish, don't want what you’re offering / And I’m done talking / Awfully sad it had to be that way.” She sounds like a cynical Alicia Keys, spitting out smoky pleas and biting observations capped off with expert vibrato. It’s been a while since a track has captured the ennui of burned out youth so inventively, so well.
Know-It-All continues strongly, and “Four Pink Walls” and “Outlaws” keep the energy alive. The latter is doo-wop done right — a modern tune through and through, with apt ’50s drive-in influences. It never crosses into hammy territory, nor does it reek of pseudo-feministic lyrics (cough, Meghan Trainor, cough), and Cara’s voice is potent enough to set it apart from most of the album’s other poppy songs. “Four Pink Walls” is just as great: as a funky, personal ode to dreams with chunks of piano and jazzy chord progressions, it sounds straight off Amy Winehouse’s Frank. Cara takes many genres for a walk on this compilation, and it’s an experiment conducted with caution and grace.
However, when you hit so many high notes, low ones are inevitable. Too many of Know-It-All’s songs fall into the rabbit hole of pop typicality: “Overdose,” “I’m Yours,” “Wild Things” and “Scars To Your Beautiful” are the prime examples of this “basic” state of being. All four blend into each other with minimal offerings of distinguishability. The verses are the sounding board for similar, less-than-gripping lyrics, and the choruses follow trite melodic lines. “Wild Things” mentions 808 drums, like so many other tunes of today. (A note: We can trace the zenith of what I’ve dubbed the “808 Plague” to Ke$ha’s 2010 sensation “Your Love Is My Drug,” where she says, “Do I make your heart beat like an 808 drum?” After years of its prolific mention in album titles and songs, I thought Ke$ha’s reference would mark its demise. But the 808 Plague is still festering. Please contact your local physician if you feel it coming over you. We can end this together.)
So maybe it was my youth or my ennui or my aversion to the basic, but I found myself pining to click pause and play “Here” again a little too often while listening to Know-It-All. Alas, plague-free uniqueness is alluring.
Cara turns it around on a few shiny beacons, like “Stars.” A stripped-down yet robust piano ballad, “Stars” deals with “shedding off the sun” while falling in love and accepting one another’s faults and potential simultaneously. Cara’s voice pierces through the track like an oh-so-gentle dagger, and the minimalist background gives her the confidence to push those million-dollar pipes even harder. Laced with some dissonant chords toward the end — something “Stone,” the album’s more lackadaisical ballad, is missing — “Stars” absolutely shines.
It’s tricky to critique an artist with an indubitably stellar voice. Things like production, backing vocals and album instrumentation are easy to overlook when a voice like Cara’s is fighting for its life in the cruel realm of my 19-year-old headphones. So even “Seventeen,” yet another basic tune, is hard to deny: it’s catchy, it’s typical, but it’s Cara. She’s singing about freezing time, about wanting to grow up but realizing that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be — and she’s doing it with that silvery voice of hers.
And then a few days later you find yourself at that drunk party, with all these people you don’t want to be with, listening to music you don’t really like, just yearning to be chilling with yourself and doing things that feed your soul. Like listening to Alessia Cara.