ALBUM THROWBACK: CAMILA CABELLO | ROMANCE (2019)
Former Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello's second solo LP, "Romance," is dedicated almost exclusively to Cabello’s relationship with now ex-boyfriend Shawn Mendes, her two-time duet partner and fellow former teenage pop star. "Romance" follows the same pristine pop cues of her 2018 debut "Camila" and imbues them with a vision about love so universalized it blurs it out of focus. There’s love and its performance, and Cabello is motivated by both. The 22-year-old singer discusses the experiences of love, sex, and heartbreak that inspired the album and sums up its conceit: to explain a familiar experience rather than trust you to feel it yourself. "Romance" is to romance as Rory Gilmore is to journalism; its depiction is a simple kind of complicated, punctuated with acceptable failures, a simplification that reassures you that your life might be better if you were more beautiful moral.
This illusion is part of "Romance’s" appeal. And there are many genuine glimpses into Cabello’s experience as a young woman navigating love and sex within that fantasy. She succeeds in tracks that capture love’s fleeting minutiae. “Shameless” begins as a hesitant statement, the flashpoint at which a young woman steps out of herself to embrace love’s abandon. The howl of her refrain—“Show me you’re shameless”—is equally a challenge to oneself as it is to another. By “Cry for Me,” a bright spot on "Romance’s" fizzling second half, Cabello is long past the point of shameless, leaning into self-love that demands someone else’s tears in place of her own. The trouble comes when Cabello seems obligated to cover the waterfront of love songs rather than push further on anyone feeling. Her effortless “that’s funny” over twinkling acoustic guitar on “Should’ve Said It” feels written for a different project than “Living Proof,” which is driven by the stomping rhythm of stylized female empowerment à la “Fight Song.” Even when motivated by a compelling story, like the guilt of harbouring feelings for someone else on “Bad Kind of Butterflies,” the song often doesn’t match its pain or power
Though the album’s biggest song, “Señorita,” inhabits Cabello’s real-life relationship with now-ex Shawn Mendes, it’s a piece with 2017’s “Havana,” a similarly Latin-influenced jaunt. Just as the “Havana” video was structured around a regular girl’s dream of starring in a telenovela, “Señorita” stars a waitress who dreams of a bad boy in a leather jacket. But the flirtation at the surface of “Havana” veiled nostalgic romance for a birthplace signalled in each note. “Señorita,” which also appeared on the deluxe version of Mendes’ self-titled album, is a harmless gesture toward Latin-ness for exotic effect rather than a needle-mover. At worst, this impulse results in Ed Sheeran’s “South of the Border,” on which Cabello featured this year: a pastiche of disembodied “Brown eyes/caramel thighs,” misplaced flutes, and Cardi B’s “You never lived until you risk your life” that points to the underlying callousness of the music industry’s embrace of the “Latin” sound. Cabello’s willingness to assist in its caricature elsewhere distracts from the otherwise interesting Spanish-classical and Santana-esque riffs on "Romance."
The production of "Romance" is inconsistent. “Feel It Twice” uses gentle minor-key guitar plucking and castanets that allow Cabello’s melody and dynamic voice to fill the space with the hurt of hurting someone else. The R&B ballad “This Love” builds off the kind of lilting ’50s dreamland riff deployed by so many sentimental love songs and repurposes it for a stream-of-consciousness attempt to process an emotionally abusive relationship: “You know how to fuck [pause] me up, then make it OK.” But at 14 songs, the album leaves too much space where Cabello is overshadowed. Even as they are ostensibly meant to show off Cabello’s range, the overproduced “Easy” and “Dream of You” lose her incredibly skilled voice in needless Auto-Tune. (The latter, for instance, shortchanges Camila’s range with a breathy “dree-HEEM” in the chorus.
The closer, “First Man,” is "Romance’s" outlier: a quiet piano ballad dedicated to Cabello’s father that transforms the driveway of her childhood home into a runway to the end of girlhood. It’s the only song on the album that stretches its conception of romance beyond the boy-girl material we’ve heard so many times before, and it’s easily the most emotionally affecting track. Your enjoyment of "Romance," on the whole, may depend on similar factors, whether you’re ready and willing to indulge in a head-over-heels love story on extremely sentimental terms. The project goes to some unexpected places musically, and I’m curious to see how she builds on it going forward. Still, "Romance" is easier to like than love for an album fueled by unquenchable passion.