“What if my best days are the days behind me?” Alessia Cara wonders towards the end of her compelling third album. Given that the amiable Canadian won a Grammy when she was just 21 – for Best New Artist in 2018, a victory that provoked a cruel backlash – this hint of a quarter-life crisis is kind of understandable. But, thankfully, any lingering doubts haven’t stopped Cara from making her most ambitious and surprising album yet.
Working with producers including Salaam Remi, a frequent collaborator of Cara’s musical hero Amy Winehouse, the 25-year-old has assembled a varied set that takes in everything from breezy bossa nova (‘Bluebird’) to mid-tempo disco (‘Somebody Else’) and funky breakbeats (‘Fishbowl’). “I might be too weak to fall in love / I might be too much for everyone,” she sings over a loping reggae beat on the album’s first full-length song, ‘Box in the Ocean,’ signposting the emotional candour to come. Cara’s songwriting has always been supremely relatable – her 2015 breakthrough hit ‘Here’ was embraced as an introverts’ anthem, something she’s admitted she felt boxed in by – but now it’s gained a newfound sophistication.
Cara has said the album has a “duality” because it contains songs inspired by feelings of “hardship and helplessness” as well as more “light-hearted moments”. In reality, the blend is reasonably seamless. ‘Sweet Dream’ addresses Cara’s crippling battle with insomnia – “it’s just like a vicious cycle,” she recently told NME, “because when you’re anxious, you sleep less; but then when you sleep less, you’re more anxious”. The track sounds wracked and wry as she sings: “Patchouli candles burnin’ out / I try to meditate it all away / But damn, it is too quiet now?”
‘In the Meantime’ also feels cohesive because a painful break-up is clearly a recurring theme. “I’m not even yours any more, but I deserve an award for getting over you – call the Academy,” Cara sings deliciously on ‘Drama Queen’, a tropical bop that recalls Alicia Keys‘ brilliant ‘In Common’.
At 18 tracks, ‘In the Meantime’ meanders a bit towards the finish, though there are no real duds here. Only ‘Middle Ground’ disappoints slightly – not because it’s a bad song, exactly, but because lyrics like “I don’t like boys… but I do” sound a bit regressive from Cara now. ‘I Miss You Don’t Call Me’, a beautifully fluid ballad that feels like an instant classic, could be the best song she has ever written. On this evidence, her best days definitely lie ahead.
Release date: September 24
Record label: Def Jam Recordings