Fifth Harmony progresses backward, forward on self-titled album

The album cover for Fifth Harmony's new album, titled Fifth Harmony.
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Fifth Harmony Fifth Harmony | Syco Records

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

At a Fifth Harmony presale and autograph event held on Pier 39 on August 15, a fan nervously clutched four customized journals — one for each member of Fifth Harmony. When asked if she was excited for its upcoming album, she replied, “I just hope it won’t be their last.”

After Camila Cabello departed from the group last December, fans pondered whether the remaining foursome would change the group’s name. In a July interview with Billboard, Fifth Harmony dispelled name-change rumors, with Ally Brooke Hernandez explaining, “The fans are (now) our fifth member.” The group’s self-title designation for its third studio album reaffirmed this decision, as did its recently won management victory, which allowed the artists to co-write half of the album’s songs.

In terms of prior discography, the album is less cohesive and groundbreaking than the band’s debut album Reflection, though it is more so than previous release 7/27. 7/27 contains a confusing amalgamation of quickly forgettable filler songs along with outstanding Billboard Top 40 tracks “All in My Head (Flex)” featuring Fetty Wap and the 2016 American Music Awards “Collaboration of the Year”-winning “Work from Home,” featuring Ty Dolla $ign. “Work From Home” not only achieved the No. 4 slot on the Billboard Top 10, but it also became the first girl-group single in nearly a decade to break the list. Yet 7/27 also features the unmemorable “The Life” and “Gonna Get Better,” haphazardly stuffed between Top 100 hits.

Fifth Harmony is stronger and sharper than 7/27 with a succinct 10-song tracklist, but it lacks any stand-out singles that rival 2016 summer anthem “Work from Home.” On the album, “He Like That” is the strongest contender, with its catchy beat and earworm chorus. “Deliver” most strongly resembles the “classic” Fifth Harmony sound, with its gratifying fusion of R&B-style verses and a pop-style chorus. The song’s simple beat, coupled with its seductive lyrics and style, render it the most Fifth Harmony tune on Fifth Harmony. But while the band’s trademark girl-power anthems are still the crux of the new album, Fifth Harmony signals a break from prior album conventions in its lyrical sophistication and features — or lack thereof.

Poignant ballad “Don’t Say You Love Me” begins with a combination of Lauren Jauregui’s raspy voice and an acoustic guitar — a short respite from the uptempo nature of the album. The lyrics demonstrate a level of romantic maturity and emotional depth missing in Fifth Harmony’s prior love ballads, a logical inconsistency when past-standout songs are overwhelmingly (much-needed) girl power anthems. This type of empowerment in its common, post-break-up form can be heard in the second single of Fifth Harmony, “Angel,” in which Dinah Jane Hansen sings to an unnamed ex-beau, “I’m more brilliant than you’ll ever be.”

Notably, this is the group’s first album without a female artist feature. In fairness, the album only possesses one feature in total — Gucci Mane on lead single and opener “Down.” Yet past female artist collaborations not only aligned with Fifth Harmony’s omnipotent messages of girl power, they became each album’s most underrated song: the criminally underhyped “Not That Kinda Girl” featuring Missy Elliott for 7/27 and the unexpected bop “Brave Honest Beautiful” featuring Meghan Trainor for Reflection. If potential future Fifth Harmony albums continue to neglect female features, the group would go against its own core values and deprive fans from outer-group, strong female voices working in tandem.

Yet in other ways, Fifth Harmony proves itself more in-line with group values than prior albums. Album closer “Bridges” is the group’s first explicitly political song, with its chorus repeating an undeniably urgent political message: “Bridges, not walls.” Hernandez, Jauregui and Hansen are listed in its writing credits, demonstrating the band’s fervent refusal to remain silent in the face of discriminatory political rhetoric, including within their art.

Instead of bombarding fans with frenzied singles vying for radio playability like 7/27, Fifth Harmony attempts a new cohesion and unified sound. It does not succeed, completely, but the album marks a notable change in style for the girl group — one that may allow for its self-titled album to be far from its last.

Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected].