In the Meantime is a bit overstuffed with filler, but Alessia Cara’s latest makes for a pleasant background companion in our present reality.
Alessia Cara made her name as an indie-pop girl in the mid-2010s post-Lorde boom, and a few years later, her biggest hits — “Here,” “Scars to Your Beautiful,” Zedd’s “Stay,” Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” — mostly feel inessential, or at least diminished by similar songs that came soon after. Cara never seemed to have pop star ambitions, content to be honest in her writing and presentation, and so her presence has become more ignorable in the years after her Best New Artist win. But that doesn’t mean her output has been bad: if anything, having the time to grow and the ability to settle comfortably into a niche only seems to have improved Cara’s music. Her last project, 2019’s This Summer, was an underrated EP full of warm singer-songwriter pop that seemed like a hint of more good music to come (“October” and “Ready” were the best tracks), and her new full-length album, In the Meantime, feels like a worthy and natural follow-up. To be clear, it’s not a groundbreaking record, but it is a pleasant, quiet one that makes for an appropriate companion in our current chaotic world.
Mellow, acoustic indie-pop is the sound most often associated with Cara, but Meantime incorporates some other playful musical influences as well. Standout track “Lie to Me” is a legitimately upbeat jam; insomniatic lament “Sweet Dream” has violins and a distorted synthy hook; there’s a crooning, jazzy feel to hypnotic single “Shapeshifter”; “Find My Boy” pulls from bossa nova; opening track “Box in the Ocean” has a syncopated, reggae-ish beat. “Middle Ground” is solidly mid-tempo, but also features a nice half-rapped, half-sung verse from Chika that references both basketball and Disney’s Hercules. And though the project stays squarely in the territory of the introspective singer-songwriter, there are surprising, upbeat musical moments scattered all over its runtime that keep the listening experience fresh across a long tracklist.
At 17 songs (plus one short intro), there are inevitably some tracks on In the Meantime that end up feeling like filler. There’s a bit of a slump in the middle — “Somebody Else” and “Drama Queen” aren’t bad, but are somewhat nondescript and could have easily been cut. But the album at least ends on a strong note: the last half a dozen songs are the best stretch on the entire project, sonically varied and boasting strong hooks and vivid atmospheres. Although the upbeat tracks on the album are fun, Cara knows what she’s doing as a writer and makes a few of the slower songs into highlights as well, and penultimate track “You Let Me Down” is a great example. It’s quiet and resigned, but the soft production and Cara’s nuanced vocal performance elevate it from one-note despondence into a pretty, bittersweet breakup song. “I Miss You, Don’t Call Me” is another slow track whose gorgeous harmonies and simple, steady beat turn its heartbreak sentiment into something special.
About half the songs on Meantime are produced by either Jon Levine or Michael Wise and cowritten solely by them and Cara. However, there’s a surprising amount of other writers and producers scattered across the rest of the tracklist: notable names like Boi-1da, Salaam Remi, Greg Kurstin, Caroline Ailin, and Joel Little all appear for only one song each. It’s impressive, then, how cohesive and specific to Alessia Cara’s voice this album feels. The tracklist on its own seems to indicate a scattershot approach to writing with whoever was available, yet Cara’s vision is strong enough to cohere these disparate collaborators and influences together into an album that feels like a unified statement.
The lasting impression that In the Meantime leaves you with is, yes, that of a pandemic album. Not explicitly (thank god), but quietly, in its multiple references to endings, isolation, troubled sleep, and the sense of having nothing to do but get stuck in your own head. But the music itself is pretty, wistful, and empathetic to the emotional turmoil it describes: it’s the kind of project that works best on shuffle in the background, as a companion to make your quiet moments of solitude feel a little more full.
Published as part of Album Roundup — September 2021 | Part 2.