After winning “America’s Got Talent” in 2016 at age 12, Grace VanderWaal was set up to become the next factory-made pop star or to disappear into the bottom of the charts and fizzle. Her first full-length Just the Beginning makes the case that she’ll do neither. The album certainly expands beyond her tween-with-a-ukulele sound, but the production makes sense, and the lyrics feel natural to VanderWaal. Rather than a trek into a how a television show and its producers can cash in on a child, we might be seeing (admittedly not for the first time) how a genuine pop artist can come through the most mainstream of channels.

Much of the strength of the album ostensibly lies in VanderWaal’s writing. She’s credited as the writer or co-writer on all these tracks and it rarely feels like an adult’s imagining of VanderWaal’s age. The album, for the most part, sounds like the work of a 13-year-old, albeit a genuinely gifted one. The topics and thoughts resonate at that age without giving into juvenilia; the occasional overreaches to an imagined adult view of the world mirror the actual approach of adolescents. The stakes are particularly high in adolescents, and losing those stakes later life isn’t necessarily a sign of maturity.

The writing’s not perfect. “Talk Good” recounts not VanderWaal’s grammatical struggles but the challenge of finding just the right thing to say, of always freezing, of (while frozen) crashing and burning in verbal exchanges. The hook becomes more grating than catchy, and relying on a silly joke feels less David Sedaris and more like a toss-off that’s been amplified too far.

That track’s the only true misstep on the record, though. Mostly what we see is VanderWaal starting to come into her own. She sounds her best when she’s confident, which is most of the time. “City Song,” though sequenced late in the album, works as a big-voiced processional, a welcoming to a new world. “Just a Crush” lets her be a kid and still be strong, and when both of those elements mix with the lightheartedness of the song (immediately discrediting any responses about friend zoning or the like), it’s a wonderful entry into her world.

“Burned” flips that coin. It pushes into melodrama, with its bigger arrangement and fiery intensity. The vocals shouldn’t work for VanderWaal, but they do. She’ll be well served to keep Alicia Keys rather than Taylor Swift in mind as she pursues this style (the Swift comparisons have dogged her so far for superficial reasons, but they’ll hopefully drop). It might not be a relevant point, though. VanderWaal, for all her ability to begin establishing herself on Just the Beginning recognizes the honesty of the album title, and she’s exploring different styles. She’s still comfortable in her indie-folk, and the ukulele’s charm remains, but she’s willing to go bigger.

Single “So Much More Than This” feels like her musical sweet spot at this point. A little strumming, a little pop production, and a healthy amount of teenaged maturity. VanderWaal’s brushing off the bits that don’t matter. As the dirt drops from her shoulders, it’s an optimistic sound rather than a reactive or passive aggressive number. “Moonlight” mixes a bouncy strum with an upbeat production to look at someone “about to break.” There’s some deep hurt here, but some persistence, too, and VanderWaal’s ability to move through a friend’s fall makes for a compelling song. That she has the sense not to oversing it shows her gifts as an artist.

As VanderWaal develops into her own sort of pop star, she’ll further refine her sound, but she’s already showing her clarity in her songwriting. Her growth will likely be an interesting process worth watching, and if, similar to what Simon Cowell told her, she sticks to being herself, there’s some compelling music on the way.

13 Comments

  1. Dean Colding

    November 17, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Easily the most constructive review I have read to date. I am a super fan of Grace and love reading all the praise. Yours is the first I have seen to critically review it. I agree, I think this is just the beginning for this super star in the making.

    Reply

  2. Jean Ludovicy

    November 17, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    In general a nice review, but why omit to comment the best songs and the obvious masterpiece ” Darkness keeps chasing me”

    Reply

    • Don Jindra

      November 17, 2017 at 4:14 pm

      “Darkness Keeps Chasing Me” — Exactly. How could a serious reviewer skip that?

      Reply

      • Iam Galarneau

        November 19, 2017 at 12:29 am

        Agreed … I’m captivated by DKCM….

        Reply

  3. Ema

    November 17, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    I’m surprised “A better life” is not mentioned in the review. The vocals in that song are so beautiful. That song seems to be ignored in most of the reviews I’ve read. Strange…

    Reply

    • Oso

      November 17, 2017 at 6:05 pm

      I hope they’re leaving it as a true surprise rather than leading in and saying, expect this.

      Reply

  4. Justin Cober-Lake

    November 17, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    Thank you, Dean. It’ll be fun to see what she does next.

    Reply

  5. JRicke

    November 18, 2017 at 10:38 pm

    One of the better reviews, but I have to ask, why is “Just A Crush” mentioned, but not “Darkness Keeps Chasing Me”? What´s with “Better Life”, the only track, Grace wrote without co-writing, a beautiful song, strong voice, gifted lyrics. Not mentioned. This way, your review, even if I´m not with you on “Talk Good” seems to be incomplete. 3,25 of 5 for her a debut album, with song like Darkness, Florets (not mentioned either), Better Life or Insame Sometimes are, well, an opinion. But then, I´m no expert. 4,5 from me at least. Thank you though.

    Reply

    • Gaylon Ritter

      February 23, 2019 at 11:50 am

      I could not agree with you more! Timeless Grace! This 54-year-old
      woman thinks we have not seen the best of Grace yet.

      Reply

  6. J. Michael Hammond

    November 20, 2017 at 6:06 pm

    I really dig the deep review. But “Talk Good” was the track that spoke to me most clearly in an album full of stuff that I enjoyed more than I sort of felt like I should. I took it as innocent and genuine and the hook ended up not grating on me as a result.

    Reply

  7. Ben

    November 22, 2017 at 2:48 am

    I suspect the reviewer didn’t purchase and listen to Grace’s album. Instead, he riff’d his comments only off of YouTube clips that were uploaded before the album came out. The songs that he doesn’t comment on weren’t on YouTube yet. Even if my suspicion is correct, it’s odd that he doesn’t acknowledge that a majority of of the comments posted for each song clip are from adults, including mothers, fathers, and people of every generation, even people in their 80’s. While the comments are positive, the majority of tbem are from adults who are blown away and near tears (or with tears already flowing). Reading these comments can be movimg in themselves. I’ve never read so much ecstatic praise, joy, awe, love, and gratitude (to both the album’s artist and to God for bringing the artist into there lives! ) from men and women of every age group and generation. Contrary to the review’s implied perspective, this album is are not just myopic meditation by a kid for kids from a kid’s perspective concerning kid’s issues. One of the inexplicably mature gifts that Grace has is an ability to create art that resonates with, and touches the heart and souls of, people at all stages of life. Her songs tell stories about universal truths, feelings, and dilemmas that most people can relate to. Her voice and music pierces the hearts of even the toughest of men who feel the power and beauty of Grace’s work. No, Grace isn’t a next gen Taylor Swift. Yes, some aspects of her voice, music and lyrics remimd different people of a variety of other artists. However, to many people around the world, Grace is more than Vanilla or Indie Pop. She’s in a category called “Grace Vanderwaal”, unique and distinctive in voice, poetry, music, authenticity and maturity. Listening to the tracks missing from this review make all this evident, The reviews of listeners posted from Amazon to iTunes to YouTube futher affirm it. Her album is one of the most impressive works that I and many others have ever heard. Some people have called some of the songs, and even the album, a masterpiece, and none of it is grating. All of this helps explain why this coming November 30th, Billboard is honoring Grace Vanderwaal with an Award for best young new artist. Oh, I’m 56, cherish her music, think she must have been reincarnated several times already, and like many older fans, feel unusually motivated to protect and defend her work, which is why I wrote all this . Also, I have insomnia…

    Reply

  8. Tony

    May 16, 2018 at 9:55 pm

    This review sucks. Just a dumb, unfinished, garbage, not thorough at all review. Just so dumb. Makes me angry. Why don’t you listen to the whole album, the complete one with Lungs and Hope for Change and redo this sorry ass review. Maybe you can redeem yourself.

    Reply

  9. Kent

    May 11, 2020 at 8:08 am

    Poor review of what is way beyond your understanding. Wow.

    Reply

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