At 22, Camila Cabello is still in the prime age range to be a student. Although it’s unlikely she’ll be taking an arena-tour hiatus to be going back to school any time soon, “Romance,” her second solo album, makes it clear that she’s been keeping up on her studies. To be specific, it feels like she might have spent some time schooling herself when she went out on the “Reputation” stadium tour last year on how her friend Taylor Swift is able to transmit a constant sense of self-revelation to her fans while upholding unerringly commercial instincts. There would have been no better college to learn that, theoretically, you can have it all, getting into the game of confessional blockbusters.
There’s another reason why “Romance” would be a lot more personal than “Camila,” her post-Fifth Harmony bow of early 2018: When she made that album, she’s said, she hadn’t had much experience in love, so that whole nicotine addiction metaphor thing came pretty much out of the realm of romantic conjecture. The debut may only be a year and half old, but Cabello’s been in two serious relationships since then — and, in a series of “Secret Sessions”-like album premiere/discussion events with fans and journalists, she has been upfront about how all the new songs are rooted in one or the other or both of those two real-life romances. Of course, she’s learned one other lesson from Swift: Don’t name names, and let the fans figure out that, if you happen to mention that your beloved has calluses on his fingers, you might be talking about a guitar player.
Cabello isn’t in graduate school yet, when it comes to autobiographical pop, but “Romance” helps move her onto the dean’s list for young artists who at least aim to turn their journal entries into the bop of the season. Not all the songs are finely detailed — and they don’t have to be; this is unapologetically top 40 fare, not a Joni Mitchell mentorship contest. But, besides candor being its own reward, Cabello’s also smart enough to know that if you choose to use the phrase “two years” in two different songs (“It took you two years to make up your mind”; “I wish you had felt how you’re feeling two years ago”), she’s rewarding fan scrutiny with emotional Easter eggs.
None of this applies, by the way, to the elephant in the room, “Señorita,” her duet with Shawn Mendes, which is the most skippable track here. It’s also one of the biggest songs of the year, so, of course, feel free to disagree. But more than anything else on the new album, it feels like pure product — a not overly clever novelty song that’s basically the cleaner version of that dumb “South of the Border” duet she did on Ed Sheeran’s collaborations album, with a bent toward reminding us how much we loved “Havana.” It’s harmless, but for anyone looking for a window onto her relationship with Mendes, you’re likely to find out more about it via any of the 13 tracks on the album he’s not on.
Those other 13 all fall into good-to-great range. Opening number “Shameless” sets a template for a lot of the songs in how it builds dynamics by often withholding percussion — hear, the beat doesn’t even kick in till after the first chorus, then drops out again later — and precedes the electronic elements with a kicky rhythm guitar opening that’s right out of the old Max Martin/Dr. Luke songbook. Cabello’s going for a rawer tone to her voice than she would’ve on the last album, which is effective enough, and of course it’s as the aperitif to the falsetto made famous by “Never Be the Same,” which she liberally employs as an FX go-to throughout the album. “I’m tired of loving somebody that’s not mine” is a line that sets the lyrical theme of the album, too, which largely boils down to: Torn between two lovers, feelin’ like a fool. (Sorry for that throwback reference, kids.)
“Living Proof” proceeds with another musical motif-of-the-moment, the extremely loud, possibly sampled acoustic guitar, as Cabello sings, “Choir singing hallelujah / Body’s crashing right into ya, huh.” Unlike all the other recent songs dedicated to conflating church and sex, Cabello does not actually bring a gospel choir onto hers, so be thankful for small favors. It’s not just the mixture of Spanish guitar and trap that makes “Should’ve Said It” more interesting. It’s the first of the aforementioned time-stamp numbers, with Cabello upbraiding a too-belated suitor: “I knew it was you from the very first night / And it took you two years to make up your mind.” Now that he’s come back with more of an interest, she’s taken. But not, as other songs tell us, indefinitely.
The previously released “Liar,” with its dancehall flavoring, would be the hardest track to resist in an actual dance hall, and the futility of resistance is exactly her point, as she flirts — shamelessly, as a previous song would have it — with going back on a vow. And then all finally becomes explicit, and the album beaks open into something that actually feels a little riskier and more revealing, in “Bad Kind of Butterflies,” which takes an almost Goth-sounding detour into the anxiety that comes when bad news and good news are about to be doled out to two different dudes, and the bearer can’t be completely certain it’s the right call. A bop this is not, but Cabello has done a fairly superior job of elucidating that state where it feels ruinous but irrevocably reactive to be throwing a curve at two other lives at once.
The whole back end of the album is where it really flowers, especially with “This Love,” an old-school R&B-rock ballad that’s very much not of a piece with the rest of the record and benefits from the departure. (Well, old-school except for the not-so-‘60s F-words, which sound a little muted, as if Cabello were still embarrassed to say it with her mother or youngest fans in the room.) That track is an efficient setup for the two last songs on the album, which are its best, and both of which happen to be produced by Finneas, who doesn’t do his Grammy producer of the year nomination (for working with sister Billie Eilish) any shame by stepping in to help take Cabello to a different level.
Those last two corkers are pretty different, apart from their excellence and their Finneas assistance. “Used to This” is nearly an ambient piece, with the producer throwing in nearly subliminal sound effects, like streetcar bells, to augment Cabello’s tale of succumbing to a long-delayed love in a secret San Francisco sojourn. And just as audaciously as she claimed to be “Shameless” and a “Liar” in bolder previous tracks, she’s now admitting that “it’s gonna take me a minute” to adjust to going with the romance in question — a lovely confession of sweet tentativeness amid an album that’s otherwise not afraid to go for the bold.
The final number, “First Man,” is not about astronauts, but about dads as pioneers in owning a daughter’s love. It’s shameless in its own way, as a tearjerker, and there won’t be a dry eye in any house with a paternal presence as Cabello sings to her dad about how she can accept the love of a good man now — the one she’s admittedly about to go spend the night with — because she grew up having that modeled for her at home. Please, for the love of God, people: Do not ever play this at a wedding, however tempting it might be; the penalty for that should be severe. But in its proper home here, it’s just an exquisite piece of work. And, going back to earlier themes, if the credits didn’t have Cabello’s name listed as a songwriter (along with Jordan Reynolds and Amy Wadge), you’d swear Taylor Swift wrote it for her — it’s that conversationally and self-knowingly on the nose.
Singling out Finneas’ contributions at album’s close is no slight to her more regular team, although you do wish he’d done even more with her, or will. She’s got a good bunch of regulars on her side, with the previous album’s core helmer, Frank Dukes, still on board but stepping back just a bit as helmers like Louis Bell and Andrew Watt take on greater roles, along with guest-star appearances by the likes of Mattman & Robin. You could blame the latter team for the excess of AutoTune on “Living Proof” — one of those cases where it’s hard to tell if it’s being deliberately accentuated, as an effect, or they just neglected to underplay it — but that’s no big deal given how she’s proving more expressive as a singer, generally, love and beyond the pleasing trademarks and tics that worked for her before. “Romance” is a record that bumps her up a level as an artist, without trying to advance her into maturity too fast. Those closing tracks do set you up, anyway, for larger leaps.
Producers: Andrew Watt, The Monsters & Strangerz, Mattman & Robin, Frank Dukes, Ricky Reed, Nate Mercereau, Louis Bell, Benny Blanco, Cashmere Cat, Jon Bellion, DJ Hardwerk, German, Westen Weiss, Carter Lang, John Hill, Matthew Tavares, Rush Hr, Romans, Finneas, Jordan Reynolds