The narrative surrounding most musicians under the age of 20 is not often one of absolutes. You’ll hear that “she’s talented relative to other artists her age,” or that “if he’s this good now just wait until he’s older.” Sometimes the response is backhanded, as in “she channels a youthful perspective of innocence,” — suggesting that an underage artist can’t yet have a fully formed point of view. While no one seems to call out either idealistic or jaded mid-twenties musicians as naïve, it seems impossible to be a songwriter who is young without being defined as a “young songwriter.” Even Frankie Cosmos, a beloved artist in critical spheres and old enough to legally order her own drinks, can’t escape the conversation regarding her age — a phenomena she expertly laid to waste in last year’s “Young” and its biting opening depiction of her media portrayal: “With this I’m scraping by/ At least it’s cute that I try/ I wrote some songs that I sung/ And have you heard I’m so young?”
All this age-centered framing is reductive — whether it’s boxing in Cosmos and her contemporaries in the lo-fi scenes, or doing the same to newly major pop figures such as Def Jam breakthrough Alessia Cara. A Canadian import who broke through on YouTube videos she first began uploading when she was 13, Cara has been actively performing for more years than many musicians twice her age. She doesn’t shy or distance herself from her youth — the first song on her debut album Know-It-All is an ode to longing to be 17 told from an even younger perspective — but neither does she rely on it to define her identity as an artist. What makes Cara a remarkable new voice in the mainstream is her expressive vocal soul, as infectious and refreshing as her perspective, which is redefining how we think of the stories typically told on the radio.
The major story surrounding Cara’s rise to prominence is the massive success of her introvert-anthem “Here,” a top five hit that catapulted from indie-blogs to heavy rotation on department store playlists over the course of the past year. In the song, Cara turns inward and away from a surrounding house party that proves estranging rather than engaging, and the impact of having a voice in the mainstream denouncing the virtues of dim lights, muddled music, and hazy memories can’t be overstated. With “Here,” Cara has embraced an oft-alienated segment of pop-listeners, and let them know that having a voice that differs doesn’t mean you can’t raise it.
Upon listening to the rest of Know-It-All, it quickly becomes apparent that “Here” was not the most conventional choice for a lead single. More than half the album is made up of smoother, more easily digestible, and melodically catchier material — and while “Here” is easily the highlight of the record, it isn’t nearly as factory-ready for success. And ultimately, that’s the record’s limiting factor: “Here” is not only an outlier on the charts, but of Cara’s own catalogue. While there’s still more gold to be found in vinyl-scratching highlight “Four Pink Walls,” much of the rest of the album comes across as a rich voice getting buffed down until none of its original sharp edges remain. Similar to how cubic-zirconia shines brighter than a diamond, but that extra gloss actively reveals its nature as a replica — Know-It-All shines in all the ways a pop-record is supposed to, but fails to display much in the realm of authenticity.
Nonetheless, Alessia Cara’s foot is through the door, and her name is one to keep an eye on for years to come. Her first show in the Bay Area is already at a venue as large and significant as The Fillmore, and she’s acquired a live consistency and credibility that many experienced pop stars still haven’t managed. Even if she decided not to say much with her debut album, her voice is still as impressive as initial impressions suggest — and you can see her own it on stage next Thursday.
Alessia Cara, Kevin Garrett, Craig Stickland, Leaf
February 11, 2016
8 PM, $20