When “Scars To Your Beautiful” blew up overnight in 2016, Alessia Cara faced a dilemma that had plagued many in her path: develop a strong fanbase and cruise to constant success, or fade into irrelevance once the next one–hit wonder appears. But unlike artists such as Meghan Trainor, Carly Rae Jepsen, or Iggy Azalea who chased more hits, Cara was content with making music that was personal to her. The music video for her early single “I’m Yours” perfectly showcases her humble personality. Instead of choreographed dance sequences or high–budget CGI effects, the video is taken with a selfie stick and includes only Cara and her brother strolling through a suburban neighborhood.
Cara has always made it clear that she’s not your typical pop star, and she continues to illustrate that on her new album In The Meantime. By offering a glimpse of her previously untold emotional obstacles, Cara is a glass tank for others to observe and appreciate.
“Fishbowl” best introduces Cara’s crises and lays out the issues the pop star faces as she refines her character. She can’t recognize if she’s “swimming in a fishbowl” or actually “in the deep end,” and this loss of depth perception coincides with other issues that clog her mind. What starts as a cozy and sensual R&B–pop track temporarily transitions into disarray when Cara’s voice is drowned out by the havoc of saxophones. They allude to the sudden panic attacks Cara sometimes faces, which was the main inspiration for the track.
Feeling trapped by her anxiety, she expresses how an uncontrolled buildup sometimes manifests into a battle, her “against [her] body.” The album’s cover features Cara shut inside one of these fishbowls, but she’s not afraid to share her vulnerability in isolation when she begs for somebody to “talk [her] down.” Rather, she finds this process to be beneficial in her own journey and helpful in expanding on “more mundane things, more nuanced things” in her life.
Although “Fishbowl” highlights an introverted Cara, “Shapeshifter” brings out her bolder and more impassioned side. She views a past relationship with regret for not viewing the red flags. Even in the times when they’re “dancing in a dream,” her partner betrays her by “break[ing his] promise” and acting like a shapeshifter. A harp and other string instruments are interspersed with the soothing guitar, subtly adding drama. The soft “kaboom” at the end theatrically signifies the end of this toxicity.
Similarly on “Drama Queen,” Cara retroactively analyzes a relationship laced with turmoil. She calls her partner a “drama queen” when she wants a steadfast “knight in shining armor,” not someone who is uncommitted and will “break [promises].” Her life eerily mimics a movie to the point where Cara wants to “call the Academy.” She’s still fittingly confined in her transparent habitat, but she has grown comfortable in her new environment. Even if everyone can see her mistakes, Cara finds solace in candidness.
Sometimes, Cara feels exhausted by these failures, which leads her to the temptations of introversion. On “Middle Ground,” she wonders what it's like to thrive by herself. But she’s not completely alone; she still “got [her] dog” who’s “enough” for her. While the bed may be “a little cold on the left side,” "it’s warm enough sometimes." These new experiences lead her to a “middle ground,” which drives her crazy. Like the album cover, she’s stuck between two contrasting worlds: Does she relive the heartbreak that caused her so much pain, or find the joys in individuality?
Collaborator CHIKA helps Cara figure out this predicament. She advocates for self–care and self–love, letting Cara know that if “love is really meant for [her],” then that person will “meet [her] in the middle.” Cara embraces her identity, and despite the pressure to succumb to outside influences, she knows that it’ll take time for her to fully appreciate the “butterflies and starry eyes” of a potential love interest.
“Sweet Dream” extends the listener’s peek at Cara’s hyperactive, uncertain thought process. As a sufferer of insomnia, she can’t “catch” where her “running mind” goes, even if it’s 4:55 in the morning. Much like her spatial struggle on “Fishbowl,” Cara faces temporal disorientation as she asks if it’s the night or the morning. These restless moments are ridden with “[hidden monsters]” or “scary thoughts” when all Cara wants is the stability of “sweet dream[s].” Ironically, the thoughts can “wear [her] out” as she expresses in “Voice In My Head,” but sleep still isn’t an option. The result is “an evil figurine” that breaks her “own heart” and makes her walk “with [her] head down.” These voices act as motivation when she’s alone in her own world, but they are just as likely to turn against her at the worst times.
After Cara won Best New Artist at the Grammys, she became susceptible to the Best New Artist curse, a decades–long superstition that predicted an imminent downfall. Even if Cara isn’t the go–to feel–good radio powerhouse anymore, In The Meantime is one of the most realized, mature, and confessional albums from an artist who has been in the musical spotlight since early adulthood. She further develops the story she told on “Scars To Your Beautiful” after the chaotic times of her teenage years, letting these scars age and heal over time.
It’s disrespectful to label Cara as a generic indie–pop artist when the struggles she relays are her own. In the big, empty space of an aquarium, she is still finding the best way to approach her challenges in her small yet independent fishbowl. Permanence doesn’t suit her, but neither does turbulence. She’s still trying to find the perfect balance, and her songs are proof that she’s on the right track.