Alessia Cara has returned with a mighty pop opera. In The Meantime, her third album is about a bad romance that has the Canadian pop-R&B singer feeling like a phantom beneath a candelabra of patchouli candles. Over the course of 18 songs, she walks us through the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, redecorating your apartment — from the horn-dappled drama of “Box In The Ocean” to I’m-actually-taking-the-higher-road folk of “Bluebird” to the moving-on groove of “Find My Boy.”
Six years ago, Cara rose to stardom on the unlikely success of her sleeper-hit, “Here,” and then cemented her status as a serious force in music with soul-baring ballads like “Scars To Your Beautiful” and the Logic, Khalid collab, “1-800-273-8255.” At 21, she won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. You could argue she’s feeling the weight of those plaudits on the piano ballad, “Better Days.” “What if my best days are the days I’ve left behind,” she asks, her voice flying away like Nelly Furtado’s bird into a field of violins. It might seem a tad melodramatic coming from a successful 25-year-old until you remember how much it sucked being 25 — feeling adrift and hamstrung by uncertainty most of the time.
Cara is still making up her mind. But R&B has always been her north star. On “Shape Shifter,” she stuns with bluesy ambivalence in her lower register. It’s a more mature sound — like if Amy Winehouse was downing Shirley Temples instead of Tanqueray — but it suits her. On the other side of the spectrum is “Sweet Dream,” a playfully doomed ode to her insomnia where she sounds more like different Brit, Lily Allen, on lines like, “Monsters hide under my bed/ They bother me with all kinds of things/Like that one stupid thing I said.”
A big throughline of this album is Cara wondering whether she can trust her own mind. But the melodicism and warmth of most of these songs, like “Fishbowl,” “Voice In My Head,” and “Somebody Else,” don’t betray any actual disillusionment. That’s not a bad thing considering the radio is teeming with sad songs right now. The world could use a little more light. And Cara is the kind of singer that just can’t help letting the sun shine in, even when her wry lyrical darts — “It’s not romantic/ It’s problematic” (“Drama Queen”) and “I’m my mother’s kid/ I’ll guilt myself into pain until there’s nothing left” (“Clockwork”) — hint at real pain below the surface.