For a relatively brief period of time, Alessia Cara was the biggest name in pop music. The bluesy Isaac Hayes-sampling “Here” made her a viral sensation, and “Wild Things” and “Scars To Your Beautiful” morphed her into a Top 40 radio darling. Then came the collaborations. “Stay,” her monster duet with Zedd, racked up blockbuster streaming numbers and, “1-800-273-8255,” on which she appears alongside Logic and Khalid, scored two Grammy nominations and peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Alessia was even tapped to sing the Oscar-nominated “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana. The tepid reception of her sophomore album, The Pains of Growing, as well as its singles, effectively booted Alessia from the top of pop music’s pedestal. In a choice that rings as authentic and intelligent, Alessia looked inward for her latest album. Instead of trying to latch onto the trap-pop and 80s-inspired trends that currently have Top 40 in a chokehold, Alessia decided to create an introspective album that explores how the pandemic impacted her relationship with her anxiety, depression, insomnia, and love.
Alessia Cara’s music has always been marked by her sharp songwriting, her tender voice, and her ability to bend metaphors into stories from different perspectives. Of course, she can reach for the cliché and inspirational, but those tracks always leave more to be desired. In a similar sense, Alessia has proven that she can nimbly handle buoyant EDM production, but In The Meantime finds her at ease over bossa nova guitars, jazzy chords, and gentle acoustic instrumentation. The album begins with “Unboxing Intro,” a scatterbrained shadow of a song that quite literally has anxiety coursing through its melody. The unstable tempo adds to the visceral energy of the song before transitioning to a more standardized, yet still sonically intriguing, soundscape for the following song: “Box In The Ocean.” The anti-partying themes of “Here” and the self-empowerment sentiment of “Scars To Your Beautiful” made Alessia the perfect pop star role model for parents to flaunt to their children, but it’s a position she expresses her discomfort with on “Box In The Ocean.” “What if I’m a bad role model, what if I’m scared?” she posits. Although the lyrics are concerned with suppressing her tornado of emotions into a “box in the ocean,” Alessia opts for a bouncy collection of sonic influences and motifs ranging from reggae-pop to tasteful brass arrangements. Already, In The Meantime promises to be more interesting than anything on Alessia’s last record, and the first half of the album makes good on that promise. The best moments on this album are when Alessia fully leans into bossa nova. “Bluebird,” which is her first song to feature a sample since 2016’s “Here,” utilizes bossa nova to convey the forlorn yet romantic feeling of letting a lover go. The softness of Alessia’s tone is paired perfectly with the sensual guitars. Similarly, “Shapeshifter,” one of the album’s pre-release singles, is easily one of the best songs of Alessia’s career so far. The Salaam Remi-produced jewel finds Alessia painting witty lyrics against an intricate arrangement of guitar, bass, harp, and drums. “Don’t know if I wanna get you back or get you back someday,” she winkingly croons in the chorus.
Outside of the bossa nova influence, which should have informed far more songs on the album, Alessia’s attempts at big pop numbers are mostly successful. “Lie To Me” is a hip-hop-influenced track that features her talk-rap-singing her way through blunt demands of truth from her lover. The Boi-1da production breaks up the monotony of the album’s sound, and the contrast of the violas and breakbeat is sublime. “Somebody Else,” spins the faintest echoes of post-disco into a sweet collaboration with Chika. This track wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Tayla Parx’s Coping Mechanisms album. There’s also “Fishbowl,” a track that offers up an explanation for the album’s artwork. She sings, “am I swimming in a fishbowl? Am I in the deep end? / Oh, there’s no way out, can somebody talk me down?” Alessia’s utilization of a fishbowl as a metaphor for the unique phenomenon of panic attacks in times of pandemic-induced isolation is nothing short of excellent. She is often left out of conversations concerning the best new-generation songwriters, but In The Meantime is a stern reminder that she absolutely belongs in those conversations. On Alessia’s last album, “Out of Love” was the defining ballad. In The Meantime continues this tradition with “Best Days,” the de facto title track. This album, in essence, is Alessia’s rumination on the in-between parts of life. Instead of focusing on the major bookend events, Alessia is concerned with how those moments in the middle shape her as a person, friend, lover, and daughter. It’s a gorgeous number that shines with hope even if sorrow may threaten to take over.
In The Meantime is a formidable record. It’s an album that shows remarkable growth in nearly every aspect of Alessia’s artistry. Nevertheless, the album is bogged down by its ridiculous length. In The Meantime simply did not need to be an hourlong 18-track record. At all. The back half of the album is redundant, less sonically interesting than the front half, and just tiring to sit through. Had this album been cut in half, it would have easily been a nearly spotless body of work. In spite of all this, however, Alessia has delivered her best album yet. It feels like her journey is just truly starting.
Key Tracks: “Shapeshifter” | “Bluebird” | “Fishbowl” | “Lie To Me” | “Best Days” | “Voice In My Head”