Camila Cabello - Camila (Review)


I really don’t want to be the guy to spoil it for everybody. Haters of pop music have made their appreciation of this record fairly public, critics (I mean the deeply musically interested ones, not those who capture pop culture’s zeitgeist) praised it as a great work of pop music, and at the same time, it seems to please all the mainstream listeners as well, unlike other critical pop darlings that were barely noticed out of these circles. It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that this is a fine pop album that the entire world admires. And out of all people I, who has no bias towards the genre and excitedly watches the evolution of it, can’t really enjoy the outcome the way I could.

Hypothetically, everything about Camila looks just fine. Marking a departure from the girl group pop of Fifth Harmony towards a Latin inspired singer-songwriter style, the album’s tone is pleasantly light, and never comes off as trying hard to sound like that. It manages to convey a soft summer breeze that never digresses into all too forced and unnaturally cheerful sing-along melodies like so many other songs of this genre that manage to get international recognition. Not even the highly successful single Havana is your typical overly happy summer hit, instead it goes for a laid back, steady style. Songs like the melancholic guitar piece Real Friends, as the title suggests about false friendship, show Cabello’s talent in songwriting. It’s a beautiful song. Not just catchy or professional, but viscerally emotive. In contrast, songs like In the Dark create a certain poppy tension with an ease little pop stars that are in the business can’t do. Hearing songs like All These Years, I wonder if I underestimated the impact Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself had on the pop music scene, but Cabello actually manages to give the formula her own touch. Never Be The Same should make Ellie Goulding very worried when it comes to anthemic, slow paced pop. The beats, tenderly complemented the tone without aiming too high, are carefully crafted to set the tone for Cabello’s lyrics to unfold. There’s much sensitivity from everyone involved to make all the songs internally consistent. Sounds good so far. The premise is set for a giant summer record for those who may not enjoy the simplistic earworm dance tunes that usually dominate the charts in that regard, but want to get in the right mood with a more relaxed sound. Everything works together like a clockwork.

But this is the moment where the album makes one major mistakes that violently butchers everything the other elements have built up: the Autotune. Throughout all of the album a thick layer of the vocoder is lavishly put on Cabello’s singing and destroys every bit of personality, emotion or harmony.

It may sound odd that out of all people such a complaint comes from me. After all, I praised BTS’ current album, and even awarded Post Malone’s Beerbongs and Bentleys full five stars - both are records with a very heavy use of Autotune. You see, I have no problem with Autotune per se. While I value singing talent, I know that not everyone who has a vision also has the voice to execute it well. But it takes sensitivity. As for BTS, there are many performances found where the voices are unaltered by the effect to show that they can sing and using it simply for aesthetic reasons. Also congratulations, they used it so perfectly that they left all of the singer’s emotions and personal perks in. Post Malone gives a very gripping and intense performance, and this can be heard despite the Autotune (also… I figured out the heavy vibrato is actually real, at least some of it). In fact, the unnaturally perfect harmony the effect adds to his voice puts the attention even more onto the emotion he puts into the songs. Most importantly: this use of Autotune fits the tone of the singers and the music. And whether the tool is used to create a robotic, futuristic effect as heard on Cher’s Believe or Kanye West’s Love Lockdown (the transition of the notes is very rough in this case, much like playing it on a keyboard), or to subtly, smoothly correct the pitch when a note couldn’t be hit (there’s much slide in it so it imitates a natural singing voice, if done right you won’t notice unless you’re focusing very closely) - it’s perfectly okay with me. It just needs to be done right. And on Camila, it’s not.

I have no idea what the idea behind this was. I assume it’s pitch correction because her live singing isn’t always spot on, but out of a hundred notes, she misses about three. Only very little Autotune would have been necessary, only at the most extreme notes. And probably not even that would have been needed if she simply re-recorded the line. Nevertheless, the effect brutally crashes through her vocals on every line in every song like a bulldozer. Like I said before, if it was an aesthetic choice, e.g. if she used it as excessively and obviously as T-Pain, there wouldn’t be a problem. However, it’s supposed to sound subtly, as all the individual notes slide together fluently. But the outcome is more than sloppy. Her voice often comes off sounding like a “swoosh” effect, sometimes it’s artificially polished without vibrato or a slight roughness. It’s like a computer’s impression of what a human voice is all about, devoid of any feeling for the nuances that transmit emotions. Much like a very, very, very, very advanced vocaloid.

It’s somewhat concealed on the songs that have a richer beat work, such as the lead single Havana, in addition to the fact that it doesn’t bother as much in this mid-tempo style, but it becomes a big problem on the songs that rely on her vocals, when the main instrumentation comes from one instrument (and there are many moments when her singing is in the center of attention). It completely ruins Consequences, a beautiful ballad consisting solely of her voice and a piano. If there is ever a time in music when slight imperfections in singing are a good thing, it’s this type of song, as they add honesty and make the lyrics all the more credible. Now, the producers had a different idea: in this tune, where there is no drum kit, sample, guitar, synth line, etc. to distract, they went for a full make over of her vocals, making the excessive use of the vocoder very clearly audible. At the end of some lines, you hear how sensitively she could actually sing, but the extreme effects make her sound like a doll.

There are two major problems with the Autotune on Camila. Firstly, it’s used uneasthetically - it’s too audible to conceal singing flaws yet is not obvious enough to pass as an effect. And secondly, it kills every tiny bit of feeling and personal touch - the vulnerable moments sound steady and stiff. It’s a pity - the songwriting and beat production are really good, and it would have been enough for a pleasant pop album with a spark of individuality.