A week before the much-hyped release of Taylor Swift’s Reputation, another plucky blonde, who could easily be mistaken for Swift’s younger sister, put out a debut full-length album. Grace VanderWaal is known to most as the preteen winner of the eleventh season of America’s Got Talent. But moving on from reality competition, despite an endorsement from Howie Mandel, can be tricky. VanderWaal’s album, the aptly named Just The Beginning, is age-appropriate in a way that doesn’t demean her talent. She is relentlessly chipper, inquisitive and awed by her own little world. And lucky for us, it’s a fabulously sunny world to spend some time in.
The album opens with the first single, “Moonlight,” which showcases VanderWaal’s talent for ukulele, an instrument that can be limiting in range and tone. But the plucky silliness that comes along with a ukulele-fronted song is tempered with soulful lyrics and layered production. “Sick of Being Told” is up next, a song of rebellion, but well-mannered rebellion. It’s a great display of VanderWaal’s clever songwriting. She taps into unapologetic teenage candor, but replaces cattiness with youthful ambition. “So Much More Than This,” “Escape My Mind,” and “Talk Good” are similarly ripped from the pages of her journal, but with polish and maturity that translates her teenage insecurity into lyrics that even the most jaded adult could sing along with.
“Burned” is a Swiftian calling-out of a nebulous enemy, driven by piano, VanderWaal’s voice shifting between feathery whisper to full-on belt. “Better Life” is one of the best displays of her lovely range and vocal control. Her voice is smoky, sultry and jazz-tinged, but with the hopeful exuberance of kid having the time of her life. “Florets” is the stylistic outlier of Just The Beginning. It’s a big, fun dance jam that makes me wish VanderWaal was slightly less versatile and talented, so she could spend the rest of her days lending vocals to house tracks. But fortunately, for everyone besides Dutch DJs, VanderWaal is poised for pop stardom on her own terms.
In listening to Just The Beginning, I hope that this is just that. VanderWaal is a remarkable talent coming of age in an era of meaningful pop music. There is no shortage of critically acclaimed pop and VanderWaal fits in well with peers like Lorde and Carly Rae Jepsen. But where they operate in a dance-centric realm, she scratches a wholesome, folky itch.
Just The Beginning is 42 minutes of musical Prozac. VanderWaal’s optimism is as infectious as her lyrics, a welcome change of pace in a cynical time. Her songs encourage a mental recalibration. Like she sings on the triumphant “City Song”: "Everything going on around you / Just close your eyes and disconnect for a moment or two.”
Notable Tracks: “City Song” | “Moonlight” | “Talk Good”