Monday, September 27, 2021

Review: In the Meantime • Alessia Cara

Alessia Cara leapt into fame from a laptop in her parent’s house. Now, she comes to us from her apartment, and she’s worried. “What if they forget about all I've done, if I built it up just to be no one?” she asks herself on “Box in the Ocean,” the impressive introduction to her third studio album, In the Meantime. It’s a legitimate fear: Off the back of sleeper hit “Here" and follow-up single "Scars to Your Beautiful," the singer-songwriter won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2018 and snagged two high-profile collaborative hits with Zedd and Logic. Her own material, meanwhile, continued to sound homegrown despite its major label vehicle: Her second record, The Pains of Growing, drove her introductory bedroom budget sound to a dead end. It seemed like Alessia Cara was content in defaulting to her comfort zone, no matter the stale air that surrounded every stanza – until now. Her third record matures her sound from a more inspired space: Wrapped in a variety of contemporary sheens, the album brings her up to speed in the pop music landscape.

Our 20s are a strange decade in our lives. In many cases, they begin in chaos – our future shines before us, and life is the game through which we’ll eventually reach it. By their end, our 20s tether us to our new normal. Opposite Lorde, who released an album just last month that celebrates the mid-20s stabilization, Alessia Cara has had a tough time in the adjustment. “What if my best days are the days I've left behind? And what if the rest stays the same for all my life?” she sings on “Best Days,” a mid-album ballad with immense staying power for a listener who, too, struggles under time’s militant march. Time carries on, even when a global pandemic steals over a year and counting of our primetime decade – and to make matters worse, Cara went through one hell of a break-up. “If you’re with someone else, come clean. I’d rather be by myself than let you lie to me,” she tells a partner on “Lie to Me.” More often than not, she translates her feelings well – and even when she indulges in an easy cliché as she does on “Drama Queen” or “Fish Bowl,” she compensates with a sharp ear for melody.

While its lyrics jitter with anxiety, In the Meantime goes down smoothly. Produced with visions of the tropics, the record mixes together rhythm and blues and pop, with splashes of disco and bossa nova for good measure. Snappy drums thump and bass grinds against the bottom of many tracks without seeming like flashy distractions from the artist at hand. Cara’s voice carries a clean and inoffensive timbre, and here, it’s often layered and run through some subtle digital magic to coat the music in a sweet glaze. "Somebody Else" and "You Let Me Down," which contrast pointed feelings with bright window dressing and superb vocal work, provide solid representations of Cara's musical direction. The album shouldn’t, however, be considered Alessia Cara’s poptimism reinvention. Under its sheathing, the album doesn't push Cara beyond her unpolished diarist tendencies, and even at 18 tracks long, it doesn't often try to punch far above its weight. While it isn’t the uncharacteristic revelation record to reel in a cult following, In the Meantime is an unexpected step forward for an artist who has both recognizable talent and motivation to refine it.

In the Meantime is available now under Def Jam Records.

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