Originally written and published by me for PopMatters.
“So much harder to be honest / With yourself at twenty-something,” declares Alessia Cara on her third studio album, In the Meantime. “You live and then you die / But the hardest pill to swallow is the meantime.” Described by the Canadian singer as her best work to date, the album was written and recorded during the isolated periods of the COVID-19 pandemic. It largely reflects the emotional homework that Cara and the rest of us were forced to do during that time, with the final product showcasing her growth as both an artist and a human being.
“Everything I do is intentional. I feel like I’ve lived a whole other lifetime since my last album,” she told the Toronto Star. “These new songs represent freedom for me. It’s a focus I don’t think I had before … I have a new outlook; I’ve shed an old skin, and I’m lucky that I was able to document the pain I went through in these songs.” Although pain and turmoil do occupy much of In the Meantime’s lyrical content, its production is made up of a wide range of pop and R&B influences, a far cry from the introverted bedroom pop on 2018’s The Pains of Growing. But rest assured, there are still growing pains on display here—something to which Cara’s artistry remains comfortingly committed.
From both the opening interlude and the explosive emotions referred to on first track “Box in the Ocean,” it’s clear that In the Meantime is not going to shy away from moments that might not have been pretty, and as listeners we wouldn’t want it any other way. While the breakout pop of Dua Lipa or Olivia Rodrigo have re-introduced an era of traditionally shorter pop albums of 10 or 11 tracks, it’s the introspective work of pop singers like Cara who are keeping their fanbases well fed with 18-track albums.
Most importantly, nothing on an Alessia Cara album ever feels like filler, even when that might’ve been its purpose. Even on shorter offerings like “Lie to Me” or “Clockwork,” the singer’s pensive lyrics remain nothing short of spellbinding for the demographic of introverted, home-bodied youngsters she first recruited back in 2015 with “Here.” While many music critics found fault with an “unfinished” quality of songwriting on The Pains of Growing, Cara has returned to finish the assignment on In the Meantime, creating another compelling body of work that feels both complete and necessary to share.
Although she sang of insomnia and wanting a break from her feelings on lead single “Sweet Dream,” one of the album’s many standout moments is swiftly becoming “Best Days.” The song functions as somewhat of a sad sequel to The Pains of Growing’s outro where she sang, “These days I’m my own best friend / I make my bed to lay in it.” Perhaps influenced by the rush of uncertain emotions caused by our year of solitude, Cara battles imposter syndrome and contemplates whether her best days are behind her. “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 asks. “Are the best days just the ones that we survive?”
Cara described the track as her rock bottom, “emotionally and mentally,” and said it was the most difficult song to finish for the album. Borne out of a lyric she was planning to use for the bridge on “Box in the Ocean,” her producer Jon Levine convinced her that it needed to be its own song. “Best Days” explores how she was “being hit with a lot of the ugly truths of adulthood and responsibility,” a theme that has carried on throughout all three of her albums. “It’s very hard to speak to yourself in an honest way because you still kind of hold on to the hope of your childhood,” she said.
In many ways, In the Meantime feels like it completes a trilogy of albums chronicling both Cara’s rise to fame and the unease that comes along with becoming a fully grown human being without your consent. The album is sonically and lyrically her best work yet, and proves that any process of healing is never black or white and does not exist on a straight line. “It’s a lot of unlearning and relearning and tons of lapses along the way,” she said. “I’m tapping into that freedom and feeling the most liberated I have ever felt.”
Jeffrey’s favorites from In the Meantime: “Box in the Ocean,” “Bluebird,” “Fishbowl,” “I Miss You, Don’t Call Me,” “Middle Ground,” “Somebody Else,” “Drama Queen,” “Best Days,” “Sweet Dream,” “You Let Me Down,” and “Apartment Song”