For connoisseurs of the piquant moment when a manufactured pop band goes awry, Camila Cabello’s acrimonious 2016 departure from US X Factor runners-up Fifth Harmony provided rich pickings. It had it all. First, the curious sound of a manufactured pop band member huffily protesting that being in a manufactured pop band is stifling their capacity for self-expression, as if they mistakenly thought they were joining an experimental free-improvisation quintet along the lines of the AMM. The brief period where everyone involved starts behaving as if a member of a manufactured pop band leaving is a global humanitarian tragedy that must be prevented at all costs: according to a report in Billboard magazine, Fifth Harmony’s management did everything short of demanding the United Nations deploy a peacekeeping force, insisting the band took a therapist on the road with them and organising something referred to as a “come to Jesus meeting” with then-Epic Records CEO LA Reid. The entertaining mutual slanging match reached a peak when Fifth Harmony performed at last year’s MTV VMAs with an anonymous figure in Cabello’s place, who immediately fell backwards from the stage, as if they’d employed a sniper and had her shot.
And finally, there’s the enticing prospect of an album from the departee that bitterly picks over their recent past in the manner of Robbie Williams’ early post-Take That oeuvre. At one point, Cabello’s solo debut was going to be released under the winningly portentous title The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving, while a track scheduled to appear on it, called I Have Questions, let her former bandmates have it in no uncertain terms: “Why don’t you care? I gave you all of me … I should never ever have trusted you”, etc.
But that was before another track, softly released as a promotional single, went supernova. The Young Thug-assisted Havana played on Cabello’s Cuban roots, chimed with the current vogue for Latin-flavoured pop and became one of those singles that gets into the charts then stubbornly declines to push off: months after it first appeared, it’s still in the Top 5. It was a big enough success to establish Cabello as an artist in her own right, rather than an ex-member of a girl band, which seems to have caused a rethink about her album. The title was changed to Camila and it’s hard not to wonder if its overall tone might have changed with it. Certainly, I Have Questions has quietly vanished, and you search almost in vain for anything along similar lines. Only Real Friends fits the bill, with its lyric that sounds like it’s dealing with nights spent feeling isolated while on tour.
Yet anyone disappointed by the lack of bitter kvetching about life in the Cowell-ruled girl-group bubble will be mollified by what a strong pop album Camila is. It clocks in at under 40 minutes and its brevity gives it a focus at odds with the tendency for pop albums that last for about 18 months, stuffed with guest appearances and try-anything-once bet-hedging. Only the dreary Into It feels commonplace – elsewhere, everything Camila does, it does really well.
The production is appealingly low-key and spare, big on acoustic guitar and ghostly assemblages of drifting electronics and treated backing vocals. The piano ballad Consequences is an unexpected triumph: eschewing the usual melodramatics, Cabello’s vocal is controlled, delicate and affecting, while the accompaniment vaguely recalls – of all things – Asleep by the Smiths. The songs in the Latin-flavoured vein of Havana – the reggaeton-fuelled She Loves Control and Inside Out – never sound like slavish imitations, desperate to recapture the hit-making magic. Indeed, the latter song is one of the best things here. Fluffy but charming, it exudes a kind of breezy guilelessness, which is no mean feat, given that, like every other track here, its manufacture involved a vast army of songwriters-for-hire.
Perhaps emboldened by Havana’s vast success, Cabello has developed a habit of carrying on as if her debut album is a starkly uncompromising personal statement, free from the kind of pressures that were brought to bear on Fifth Harmony’s output. That obviously amounts to laying it on a bit thick. Cabello gets a writing credit on every song – a rare occurrence with her old outfit – but Camila is clearly a pop album made in the traditional way, by committee, with one gimlet eye always fixed on commerce. The supporting cast features everyone from Ed Sheeran collaborator Amy Wadge to Ryan Tedder, and there’s something very telling about the ruthlessness with which a succession of songs that failed to shift sufficient units as singles were expunged from the final tracklisting.
It doesn’t matter. Camila is one of those moments where the committee approach strikes gold: smart enough to avoid smoothing out the quirks and slavishly chasing trends, it’s a product of the pop factory that doesn’t sound run-of-the-mill.
This week Alexis listened to:
Futur Parlé by Essaie Pas
Forthcoming on DFA, from a concept album apparently based on a Philip K Dick novel, this is icy, melancholy European electronic house music.