by Alison Standish, MUSIC CRITIC
10 November 2017
Music can do an infinite number of things. It can help us express the way we feel about ourselves and the way we feel about others. It can tell a story, and it can highlight a memory. Music can transport us to countless places. It can make us smile, and it can make us cry. Music is commonly known but seldom understood, commonly heard but never really listened to. Grace Vanderwaal, the 13-year-old singer and songwriter who won America’s Got Talent last year, clearly not only understands music, but knows how to express that understanding with clairvoyant complexity.
With her new album, Just The Beginning (released November 3rd) Grace transports us to a world that is pretty, personal, and powerful. From thought-provoking songs like “Moonlight,” “So Much More Than This,” and “A Better Life” to light hearted melodies like “Just A Crush” and “City Song,” Vanderwaal has created a whole new musical platform that is beautiful, inspiring, and undeniably her own.
Before delving into this album, music lovers who are familiar with her typical style and image might expect this album to take them back to the America’s Got Talent days, when it was just Vanderwaal and her ukelele standing alone at the microphone. Listeners might expect a lot of natural vocals and chords, which is something she does incredibly well. They will be pleasantly surprised to hear something they might enjoy even more, an extraordinary amount of complexity in the background of every song which gives this album somewhat of a hand-crafted feel. She has utilized many different instruments to back up her signature ukelele playing, and the result is beautiful.
This album sounds like it was recorded on a beach with a background choir and orchestra lending their sounds to the tropical-esc strumming of the ukelele. One specific song that really sold me on its complex background was “City Song,” where the young vocalist not only utilizes a plethora of musical instruments but also natural sounds such as a speeding car and a laughing child to effectively transport her audience. However, despite all the additional voices and instrumental techniques used throughout the album, Vanderwaal still manages to bring a sort of natural feeling to her music that is incredibly endearing. Her voice, as always, carries her passion into every lyric and her enthusiasm is very easy to notice.
With enthusiasm and passion, however, comes a slight amount of repetition. Vanderwaal is evidently very passionate about music, and her songs definitely reflect this passion. Some songs, like “So Much More Than This,” “Insane Sometimes,” and “A Better Life” talk specifically about music: “Let the wind blow through your hair, let the music take you there, and make a better life,” she sings in “A Better Life.” She then continues on to “Insane Sometimes” with “I need to get it all out of my mind, just blast some music and close my eyes.” The threads of this theme are woven into the rest of the album, which makes it seem, at times, a bit like an essay with an overstated thesis. This album could certainly use a little more thematic variety, but some might feel as though the themes expressed, themes such as music, society, and personal passion, are beautiful as well as unconventional.
Another thing this album brought was a sense of maturity and depth that you rarely find in someone as young as Vanderwaal. Some songs, like “Burned,” “Moonlight,” and “Darkness Keeps Chasing Me” contain lyrics that sound like they were written by someone at least twice her age. She sings in her second song that she’s “[sick] of being told of what I should know.” It’s clear that she knows more than what is expected of her, and is sick of being told that her youth is a factor in her singing. In “So Much More Than This,” Vanderwaal also shares a perspective on society that is fresh, thought-provoking, and inspiring. “We don’t realize in this society doesn’t matter how your hair looks or what they are thinking just, just what we are finding” Those older, as well as those younger than her can certainly learn from her unique take on life and her inspiring lyrics.
Vanderwaal’s album is also profoundly personal, with the songs “Moonlight” and “So Much More Than This” highlighting certain aspects of the struggles that might come along with the exciting life of a young singer. “She always has a smile, from morning to the night. The perfect poster child, that was once in my life,” Vanderwaal sings in “Moonlight.” And then, later on in the song, “Now she lost her way, and she forgets to smile. Never gets a break, from this life in denial.” She also refers to the difference between her life before and after stardom when she sings, “The whole crowd seems to like me now, cuz I think I’m cool but back when I was in school they found it very easy to hate me, funny how these times are always changing.” in “So Much More Than This.” Grace brings so much of herself into this album, and it’s very easy not to hate her.
In a world of catchy beats and shallow lyrics, songs like these are rare. It’s evident that a very significant amount of thought and energy went into the making of this album. The lyrics are sophisticated enough that it takes awhile for them to soak in, and the melodies are complex to such an extent that their details are easily forgotten. If an artist really takes the time to carefully craft their lyrics and melodies, those aspects of their songs should take a significant amount of time for the listener to retain. This is an album that not only deserves a second listen, it demands a second listen.
America’s Got Talent fans and America’s newer Vanderwaal fans alike will be glad that this is Just The Beginning for Grace.
Just the Beginning is available on numerous digital platforms, as well as streaming media.
Alison Standish is a student journalist and critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the HOWL