Camila Cabello, “Romance” (Epic)
Harry Styles, “Fine Line” (Columbia)
Teen-pop vocal acts — boy bands and girl groups — always have an alibi. The producer/manager/record company made them do it. The other members outvoted them. It seemed smart or funny or commercial or harmless at the time. But a solo career demands something more personal.
Two teen-pop alumni at parallel career points, Cabello and Styles, have just released their second solo albums. Both of them emerged from groups formed on Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor”: Cabello, 22, was in Fifth Harmony, and Styles, 25, in One Direction.
On her own, Cabello has let the bravado drop away; now, she’s sounding vulnerable. “My emotions are naked, they’re taking me out of my mind,” she insists in “Shameless,” a cry of desperate desire on “Romance.”
Instead of Fifth Harmony’s full-blare choruses, Cabello’s solo songs have arrangements with more space and solitude, and she often drops to the lowest, smokiest register of her voice. She sings about pop’s eternal topics: love and lust, intimacy and betrayal, longing and loneliness, and tentative trust.
It’s a familiar pop role that Cabello inhabits easily, adding a bit of customization. In the hit “Señorita” (with Shawn Mendes), she underscores her Latin heritage, and she teases at Latin rhythms in other songs here that, in 2019, just makes her a typical American pop singer.
Throughout “Romance,” the pop machinery clicks cleverly and efficiently into place around Cabello’s voice. She clearly has an ear on her pop competition. The breathy “Bad Kind of Butterflies” is well aware of Billie Eilish. In fact, Eilish’s brother/producer, Finneas O’Connell, worked on two new Cabello tracks, “Used to This” and “First Man.”
On the album, Cabello moves between infatuation and spiteful kiss-off. But she concludes with true love in “First Man,” about convincing her father that she’s found a worthy guy to wed.
Styles’ solo career has a more complicated agenda. In One Direction, he grinned and clowned his way through songs promising affection, boyish charm and, eventually, the mischievous perks of pop stardom.
But on his 2017 solo debut album, Styles discovered both angst and rock history. “Fine Line” eases back on the angst a little and focuses on romance. Styles is on his old home turf in “Adore You” while “Falling” takes responsibility as an adult.
Styles’ fascination with classic rock continues: “Canyon Moon” is an homage to Crosby, Stills and Nash, while “She” looks toward Pink Floyd. But “Fine Line” also has songs with multilayered instruments and programmed beats suggesting current band Tame Impala.
The album is a production tour-de-force, with instruments merging in shimmering brilliance and voices stacking up in surreal stereo fireworks. Free of his boy band, Styles exults in sound, not image.
Jon Pareles, New York Times