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Album Review: Camila Cabello - Camila

Imagine Dragons Hope to Eliminate Solitude in Our Modern Existence on 'Origins'

Album Review: Troye Sivan - Bloom

Album Review: Ariana Grande - Sweetener

Album Review: Pink - Beautiful Trauma

CamilaAlbum Review: Camila Cabello - Camila

The former Fifth Harmony member’s debut solo album is largely successful at capturing her charismatic flair. Anchored by the wonderful “Havana,” it shines especially when it's light and breezy.

When an enterprising member of a pop group dares to dream about solo success, they have to reintroduce themselves to the world. If they have the vision, chops, and nerve to survive beyond their hit-making machine, they can blaze a new trail for themselves on their own terms; if they come up short, they’re relegated to history’s dustbin. Camila Cabello’s sultry, salsa-inflected “Havana” is a keystone for a superstar origin story: Striking out on her own after a bitter split with her bandmates in Fifth Harmony, Cabello realized her creative ambitions with a smash that celebrated her Cuban heritage and helped define a year in which Latin music was ascendant.

Of course, pop careers rarely come into being with that kind of elegance, and Cabello’s own rise to the top of the charts was a little more complicated. “Havana” began its run as a humble summer promotional single, one lacking the support of label execs and radio personnel alike. It was tossed onto streaming services a few months after her first attempt at a grand debut, “Crying in the Club,” fizzled out just inside the Top 50. And “Crying in the Club” failed to meet expectations because it sounded like Cabello was tracking, note-for-note, a demo pulled from between Sia’s couch cushions. It lacked the qualities that gush out of “Havana” like steam: history, personality, charisma. The tension between Cabello’s two potential futures—a spot in pop’s upper echelon or a decade spent churning out anonymous EDM collaborations and thankless soundtrack work—is what animates Camila, her debut solo album.

Cabello’s flair for the dramatic has always been her greatest strength. It was never difficult to pick her out within Fifth Harmony and when given the chance, she chewed scenery like an overeager character actor. (Listen to her rip through the bridge of weightless trop-house ditty “Write on Me.”) Her performances on the duets that first flagged her as a breakout candidate—the Shawn Mendes sleeper “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and Machine Gun Kelly’s soggy “Bad Things”—verge on histrionic, and that isn’t a bad thing; the emotional intensity of her singing makes up for the volume and density her voice lacks.

Camila shines when it’s light and breezy, giving Cabello the space she needs to cook. “All These Years” and “Real Friends” are gentle and largely acoustic with a hint of Jai Paul’s liquid zip, and Cabello sings with real delicacy about lost love and loneliness. (The fluttering vocal runs she unspools midway through “All These Years” are stunning.) “She Loves Control” is an apt mission statement for a star who soured on girl group life because she couldn’t “explore [her] individuality,” and it shows Cabello can navigate a reggaeton rhythm with the same ease that characterized “Havana.” She effortlessly toggles between English and Spanish on the sun-kissed, steel drum-flecked “Inside Out.” It’s on these songs that Camila makes its strongest argument for Cabello as a unique force, one who can churn out pop hybrids that perfectly suit a shifting pop climate and a changing country.

When the album falters, it’s because it loses sight of this compelling identity. She growls and hiccups her way through new single “Never Be the Same,” but its reliance on a love-drug conceit suggests a novice writer who has room to expand her range. (Cabello worked with a production team led by veteran Frank Dukes, but her writing credit on every song suggests a fertile Notes app.) The overwrought one-two punch of “Consequences”—which sounds a little like her attempt at something like Rihanna’s “Stay”—and “Something’s Gotta Give” slow the album to a crawl. And when Camila interfaces with trends in the larger world of pop, the results are varied. The frothy, flirty “Into It” finds a delightful sweet spot within a Lorde-Carly Rae Jepsen-Ariana Grande Venn diagram, but “In the Dark” is the kind of generic trap-pop you’d expect from any number of B- and C-grade stars. It’s a Bebe Rexha deep cut.

None of these songs are abject failures; a half-decade in a group like Fifth Harmony is an extended pop boot camp, one that can’t help but equip you with basic proficiency. If they’re frustrating, it’s because they’re juxtaposed with tantalizing glimpses of a next-generation star, the kind of artist with the presence and charm to carry pop forward into a new decade. Perhaps that’s the greatest compliment you can pay Camila: It throws off enough sparks to justify expecting more.

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Imagine DragonsImagine Dragons Hope to Eliminate Solitude in Our Modern Existence on 'Origins'

Imagine Dragons' fourth album, Origins, is better focused than its immediate predecessor, 2017's Evolve, but still follows a safe path and never generates much excitement. Frontman Dan Reynolds sings with carousing ambition, and the album contains interesting instrumental forays with guitar solos and solid backing. In the end, it's simply too middle-of-the-road, sure to chart well and find audiences attracted to clear pop sensibilities, but indicative of the band searching for too much and committing too little to veer away from where they've found success.

Origins was produced with much of the same production team behind Evolve, including Alex da Kid, Joel Little, Mattman & Robin, and John Hill, but added Jorgen Odegard and Kygo as collaborators. The album includes a track produced for promotion and inclusion of Disney's animated film Ralph Breaks the Internet, "Zero", while the strong opening track and lead single, "Natural", was used to promote college football on ESPN (another Disney connection). "Natural" opens with a throbbing vocal performance initially backed with a loud hummed harmony, before transitioning into a beating, engulfing charge of lyrical demands. There is a nice, quiet refrain across the middle of the track, and compositionally the song feels like a determined, confident band. The song recalls the popularity of their massive hit "Radioactive", both in style and substance. It's the kind of throbbing, stadium stomping hit that perfectly promos football and is equally radio-friendly without sounding like you've heard the song on TV. In a similar style, "Boomerang", "Machine", and "Cool Out" track different pop styles, from acoustic through electronic bass-driven instrumentals, to heavily synthetic keys that quickly muddle the direction of the album as opened by "Natural".

Imagine Dragons excel with a strong pop-rock song like "Natural", and their experimentations are not without merit, but Origins includes generous musical compositions like "Bad Liar" and "West Coast" that are easily disregarded. Neither evoke the crowd-pleasing and loud hits to be found on the radio but explore different elements of modern pop songs and fit perfectly alongside "Natural". Both feel acoustic and quietly evoke emotional necessity, but also don't always feel like they are trying to do so. "Bad Liar" is confessional with sweet instrumentals and a nice soundscape for Reynolds lyrics that transitions with similar impassioned pleas featured on "Naturals" and reminiscent of "Radioactive" and give the song depth. An acoustic guitar picked dominates "West Coast" and provides a clever counter to more use of background melodies and striking percussion.

Without having seen the Disney film for Zero, it's easy enough to discern how the song will end Ralph Breaks the Internet and play over the credits. Lyrics search for feeling and escape, and ultimately it is a forced composition that breaks the trajectory of the album unnecessarily. Of course, this highlights a faltering component of Origins and Imagine Dragons, but equally an aspect their fans and pop listeners are looking for: catchy, sentimental, and personal. Dan Reynolds shares a lot of himself in the lyrics to "Zero", so remember it's meant to play with Ralph, too.

he final three tracks of the album convey too general messages in line with "Digital". Lyrical delivery segues into a strong key-based instrumental and chorus on "Only", but the message of solitude is not compelling, and the song sounds like it is presenting sentimentality for that existence. Sentimentality largely closes Origins, with "Stuck" and "Love" demonstrating a vulnerability through Reynolds lyrics, and calling for reprieve amidst chaos and disorder.

Origins includes enough interesting tracks to carry Imagine Dragons success further, but the band's strength in composing bombastic and loud songs that are immediate and inspire crowd-pleasing revelry are too few. Cheers to the band and their collaborators for producing sonic diversions and conveying messages designed to eliminate solitude and alienation in modern culture, but those elements fall flat with tracks too general in scope that dominate the album. Imagine Dragons are confident in their capability and knowledge of pop music, but Origins tries too hard to demonstrate their varied interests with the results generic and indistinct.

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Troye SivanAlbum Review: Troye Sivan - Bloom

The Australian singer’s second album exudes a chic kind of vulnerability. It is a warm and delicate pop album about life as a young gay man.

I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that Troye Sivan gets it. The Australian YouTuber-turned-pop star has all the qualifications you’d look for in a modern-day gay icon—a devoted army of long-time fans, elfin features, celebrities and designers on speed dial—and the good sense to recognize how meaningless and outmoded that kind of title is. “I just don’t represent everybody, because I’m extraordinarily lucky,” Sivan told British style magazine Another Man in May. “I come from a middle-class white family in Australia, and all of my dreams have come true by 22. I had the easiest coming out in the world… There are plenty of other people who need to be heard first.”

Give him an opportunity, and he’ll happily rattle off the names of other musicians at the vanguard of queer representation: Sam Smith, Halsey, Kehlani, Perfume Genius, Kevin Abstract, Hayley Kiyoko. He invited Kim Petras on tour as an opening act and deftly handled the ensuing backlash over her work with Dr. Luke, making donations to the Ally Coalition and RAINN. His humility would feel performative and cynical if it weren’t so thorough. Blink and you might forget why Sivan is holding court on these topics in the first place: He’s an evolutionary artist, one whose existence and career is the product of decades of baby steps and boundary-pushing. Being gay is an integral and visible part of Sivan’s art, just as much as his voice or his choice of collaborators.

Bloom, Sivan’s second studio album, is best described in terms you rarely see associated with male pop stars: delicacy, transparency, and vulnerability. He sings about experiences that are commonplace for young gay men in 2018 but feel totally transgressive in a broader pop context. He wrote opener “Seventeen” about sneaking onto Grindr with a fake ID and hooking up with older men, and the title track captures bottoming for the first time in all of its agony and ecstasy.

The subject matter draws headlines, but it’s less revelatory than what’s between the lines. You can feel the power dynamics underpinning each of these songs shifting in unpredictable ways. Sivan starts both “Seventeen” and “Bloom” in a playful mood, teasing his partner, flirting, issuing commands. He’s an object of desire, and that puts him in control. “I got these beliefs that I think you wanna break,” he taunts on “Seventeen.” “Got something here to lose that I think you wanna take from me.” Just a few seconds later, he’s lost his footing: the older man he’s sought out for a virgin fling might not be so easy to manipulate in the heat of the moment. The “Bloom” pre-chorus is a nervous whimper—“I need you to tell me right before it goes down/Promise me you’ll hold my hand if I get scared now”—just before Sivan relaxes and enjoys the ride.

There’s a remarkable amount of tension in those moments, and Bloom would feel exhausting if every song was built around those kinds of formative experiences. It also offers less complicated pleasures, songs that are simpler yet still breathtakingly tender. Sivan is comfortable with desperation. He knows how it can feel like life and death hinge on scheduling a second date or sending a postcard. Lead single “My My My!” feels euphoric because of the interplay between its growled verses and pulse-pounding chorus; it feels uniquely Sivan’s because of the stakes. He’s found a guy who makes him feel like he’ll “die every night,” and when he reaches the bridge, he dares to dream of a life spent that satisfied. (He calls his lover a “treasure” and inhales sharply through clenched teeth, and it feels like the most consequential breath he’s ever taken.) Sivan also has a knack for gorgeous, concise imagery. On “Plum,” a relationship that’s nearing its end is “like bitter tangerine/like sirens in the streets.” He wants to “skip stones on [the] skin” of a boy who tastes like Lucky Strikes.

Bloom’s fragility makes for an interesting contrast with its surprisingly conservative sound. Sivan largely works with the same team and palette that defined his 2015 debut Blue Neighborhood: mid-tempo, richly hued post-Lorde pop. And while there are some welcome flourishes from unexpected sources—Ariel Rechtshaid and cult fave Jam City add celestial sparkle to regretful ballad “The Good Side,” and massive closer “Animal” swerves from a menacing rumble (courtesy of Rechtshaid, Jam City, and the Haxan Cloak) to a bridge clearly inspired by Frank Ocean’s Blonde—too much of Bloom congeals into a tasteful, muted lump. Beyond “My My My!” and the title track, its melodies and arrangements lack the urgency that defines its writing.

You can draw an interesting comparison between Sivan and his friend and collaborator Ariana Grande. They duet on “Dance to This,” an understated celebration of the pleasures of domesticity: Why go out on the town when you could stay in and have a party for two? Bloom isn’t as consistent or engaging a musical experience as Sweetener, but it still feels meaningful. If Sivan is the product of baby steps, then maybe this is one of his: bonding with one of the planet’s biggest pop stars over quiet moments with the men they love, with absolutely nothing to hide.

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ArianaAlbum Review: Ariana Grande - Sweetener

If there's a thematic thread weaving through Ariana Grande's fourth album, Sweetener, it's that not everything is what it seems. The album's first two singles attest to that notion: The deceptively mournful strains that open “No Tears Left to Cry” give way to a rush of shuffling garbage beats and a euphoric hook that remains at almost half-speed throughout, while the sultry, reggae-infused “God Is a Woman” is a feminist anthem disguised as a baby-making slow jam, a deeper reading revealing that Grande's professed feminine wiles aren't merely carnal. “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing,” she sings defiantly.

Another pre-release track, “The Light Is Coming,” at first seems spiritual in nature, hinged on Grande's infectious mantra, “The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.” But the song also doubles as a rejoinder to our current political climate, an impression bolstered by an audio sample of a man at a town hall venting his frustrations about being silenced by those who are supposed to represent him, and syncopated verses in which Grande condemns a culture that incentivizes the questioning of others' experiences.

The 25-year-old singer's newfound wokeness was, perhaps, prompted in part by the deadly suicide bombing at her concert in Manchester, England last year. Grande recently disclosed that she was plagued by anxiety in the wake of the attack, a topic she sings about candidly here. She has a keen understanding of the seemingly illusory nature of panic attacks on “Breathin”—“Feel my blood running, swear the sky's falling/I know that all this shit's fabricated”—and offers a shoulder to others suffering from PTSD on “Get Well Soon,” the running time of which corresponds with the date of the Manchester attack.

Elsewhere on the album, Grande is savvy enough to deliver her message about the importance of mental health in more nuanced ways. Though “No Tears Left to Cry” is about resilience, it's wisely packaged as a love song. And despite her ostensible maturity, Grande retains her playful, girlish sense of humor on the Prince-esque “Successful” and an interpolation of Imogen Heap's sublime “Goodnight n Go,” on which the singer implores: “Oh, why'd you have to be so cute?/It's impossible to ignore you.”

Grande's vocals strike a measured chord throughout Sweetener, mostly settling into breathy Mariah mode, her words dripping into each other on the understated “Better Off” and blending seamlessly into the sleek synths in the background of the brief “Borderline.” Even within that style, however, Grande differentiates her delivery, whether it's the half-rapped refrains of “No Tears Left to Cry” or the swooning girl-group harmonies of “R.E.M.”

Notably missing from Sweetener are any outright bangers. Despite its title, “Blazed” percolates unobtrusively, as do most of the other Pharrell-assisted tracks. The simmering “The Light Is Coming” is all skittish beats and throbbing sub-bass, while “R.E.M”—which features a hook taken from a Beyoncé demo—bops along to a midtempo groove of fingersnaps, 808s, and looped breaths.

The album's offbeat title track is an oddity that doesn't quite gel, marred by mixed metaphors and a grating refrain in which Grande plays her own hypewoman, and “Borderline” features a lamentably sqaundered cameo from Missy Elliott and paint-can beats that sound like they were exhumed from a Neptunes track from 2002. For the most part, though, the formula results in an album that's both consistent and refined, a reflection of Grande's growing awareness of herself as an artist and her place in the world.

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PinkAlbum Review: Pink - Beautiful Trauma

Another Pink album populated with misfits and outcasts, Beautiful Trauma doesn’t lack for hard-headed but tenderhearted lovers trying to make the most of things despite their failings and imperfections. The title track, which opens the album, chronicles love won through all manner of hardship and vice, what Pink describes as her “perfect rock bottom.” She’s even more direct on “Where We Go,” singing to her partner, “We’ve both always been broken.”

As if to mirror Pink’s lyrics, the arrangements here seek to cull meaning from her messes. Beautiful Trauma is as sprawling as any of Pink’s past albums, packed with her signature skyscraping piano ballads and rowdy pop anthems, though it leaves room for fleet-footed folk, pulsing EDM, and—for her second album in a row—a crass, slightly out-of-place guest verse from Eminem. On paper, it all reads like the platonic ideal of a Pink project: a slightly warped pop album full of bent-and-broken songs about bent-and-broken people. So why does it never feel quite as raucous or unkempt as it should?

Beautiful Trauma’s neat construction renders the album less than the sum of its parts.

The album is too conspicuous in touching on all the sounds that have shaped the pop charts since Pink’s last album, 2012’s The Truth Above Love. “Where We Go” has the big-footed stomp of Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, while “What About Us” is a spacy, atmospheric track with a pulsating dance beat. It’s to Pink’s credit that she sounds like a natural handling all of this material, yet the roundup of these styles can’t help but seem just a bit calculated for an album that’s supposedly about messiness. Producer Jack Antonoff lends these songs shape and focus, and there’s little fat to be found throughout. Yet, it all sounds a little too clean, too tidy, too easily resolved.

Beautiful Trauma’s neat construction renders the album less than the sum of its parts, but individual songs work well enough, thanks in no small part to Pink’s personality and charisma. The best moments are the soul-baring ones, where the singer’s beautiful-loser fixation feels raw and real: “Barbies,” with its gentle folk vibe, is pained in its longing for a simpler, easier time, while “But We Lost It” immediately takes its place among her most affecting damaged-love songs. Like the artist herself, the album demonstrates its humanity through tension and friction, when Pink’s sharp lyrics and deeply felt vocals push against the too-slick production.

The pop gods can sometimes work in mysterious ways. When Pink arrived on the scene in 2000 with the hit “There You Go,” she became the third wheel to the Britney Spears-Christina Aguilera duopoly. “Tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears,” she even griped on her 2002 single “Don’t Let Me Get Me.” But whereas Brit and Xtina are not the ruling divas they once were, Pink has just gotten better and better. Her last effort, 2012’s The Truth About Love, was a career high, a fully realized work that also became her first No. 1 album. After five years away — during which she had her second child, son Jameson Moon, last December — Pink shows that she may just be getting this party started on her seventh LP, Beautiful Trauma.

Like its predecessor, the new album reveals more brutal truths about love from the unfiltered mind of Alecia Moore. On the chamber-tinged title tune — one of two tracks produced and cowritten by Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff — love is a drug (“The pill I keep taking, the nightmare I wake in”) that takes you down as much as it gets you high. Pink continues to ride that relationship roller coaster throughout Beautiful Trauma. On the pop-rock stomper “Whatever You Want,” she’s a ride-or-die partner committing to go down together because “‘you’re the one I wanna sink with.” Meanwhile, on the R&B-flavored “Better Life,” she wonders if her man could be dreaming of a “better wife” while he sleeps: “I’ve been up late watching you breathe/Wondering if you’re gonna leave.” And the single “What About Us” — as beautifully melancholy as a song with such a galloping chorus could be — asks “about all the broken happy ever afters” without finding any neat answers.

Proving to be just as loyal as you might expect from her, Pink reunites with trusted collaborators like Max Martin, Shellback, Greg Kurstin and Billy Mann on Beautiful Trauma. They help make the record sound both fresh and familiar, with occasional curves like the gospelized rave-up “I Am Here.” Elsewhere, Eminem follows up his guest turn on The Truth About Love’s “Here Comes the Weekend” with a cheeky cameo on “Revenge,” a rare comical moment. But Pink brings the album home with the Adele-esque “You Get My Love,” one of several ballads — two of which were cowritten by Julia Michaels — that show just how far she has left Britney and Christina behind. A-

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