When Shawn Mendes first broke on the scene around 2014, a cutie with potential and the latest Canadian youngster to be discovered on the Internet, I wasn’t really intrigued, but I knew very early on that teenage girls would be better off obsessing over him than Justin Bieber. Regardless of how he made his name, Shawn Mendes made it clear early on that he had talent and a passion for music—he just needed time to show us. Since we first met him almost 5 years ago, Mendes has grown into his voice (and quite the voice it is), become movie star handsome, and gotten himself a worldwide following which, as far as Canadian stars go, is the ultimate goal.
In his debut studio album Handwritten from 2015, Mendes treated us to some slow pop rock reminiscent of early Maroon 5, making it clear that even if he didn’t have everything in place yet to maintain his impending star status, he definitely had the vocal ability and a label who knew how to make the best of it. His second studio album Illuminate came along a year later (as Britney Spears’ management once said, get ‘em while they’re young), and continued a bit of the journey we saw on Handwritten in terms of young romance and budding adulthood, but above all his sound had matured as well—if songs like “Life of the Party” or “Kid in Love” from his first album made it clear he had the vocal ability to hold his own in the industry, hit singles like “Treat You Better,” “Mercy” or the contagiously catchy “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” from Illuminate reminded us even more that regardless of how long it took his music to grow up with him, the kid has talent. Unlike Handwritten, Illuminate was less pop rock and more of a matured soft rock sound, providing somewhat of a foreshadowing that Mendes may become the next John Mayer (who he has since worked with). The lyrical content of the album might have still left something to be desired for his listeners that aren’t teenage girls, but Illuminate provided Mendes with a matured sound and image that made clear he wasn’t going to become a teenage has-been star—his voice and his looks on the album said it all: Shawn Mendes was here to stay.
In his self-titled third studio album, released by Island Records worldwide today, Mendes continues to mature most certainly in his sound, but upon a few first listens, the album provides a few head-scratchers. The lead single from Shawn Mendes, “In My Blood,” was initially released in March and didn’t blow me away, mostly because it quite literally continues the journey we followed him on in several tracks on Illuminate: expressions of anxiety towards adulthood, figuring out life as it comes at you, and wanting to give up but he can’t—it’s not in his blood. All are legitimate feelings about the young adult experience, but the song in general, both lyrical content and sound, felt tired and a little been-there-done-that. Not to take away from the valid expressions of emotions on “In My Blood,” but it just felt like it could have been an unreleased track from Illuminate: I was craving something new and fresh from Mendes that continued to mature his sound, image and lyrics. Shawn Mendes is most definitely more pop-focused than Handwritten or Illuminate, which is a bit disappointing, considering I for one thought Mendes was really gelling with the soft rock sound he explored on Illuminate. I was hoping his third studio effort would be a more mature version of the sound and image from his second album, which would have felt like a natural progression for the singer. In countless interviews, Mendes has described his new record as the most involved and personal of all his albums, which leads one to believe that his somewhat new pop sound could be what he wanted to pursue all along—when a singer is so young, it can be hard to differentiate what the singers themselves want to pursue, and what is chosen/forced on them by their label and management to make money.
Shawn Mendes is not a bad album—in terms of lyrical content, Mendes has definitely matured beyond pulpy pop rock songs catered to his teenage girl listeners, but the direction in which he has matured is not something I would have predicted for him. Tracks like “Lost in Japan,” “Particular Taste,” “Nervous,” or “Mutual” are all very contagiously catchy—that is, catchy with a contagious energy you can’t deny—like his earlier hits, but they are more pop-focused than I would have envisioned for his vocal ability, reminiscent perhaps of Ed Sheeran or Bruno Mars. That is not to say that Mendes does not perform well on any of these tracks or the album as a whole; they work, and the production is well done. I just don’t think that Shawn Mendes is his best album vocally speaking. His lyrical content has definitely matured in a commendable direction (with the exception of “In My Blood” which, in my opinion, continues to trap him in the same predictable content of his earlier and widely successful work) but in terms of vocals, Illuminate is definitely his high point. It’s a shame he didn’t combine the sound and vocal high points from his second album with the matured lyrical content found on his third—as I said before, it would have presented a progression and maturation for the singer that would have seemed natural. Pop music sells, of this I am definitely aware, and it would be difficult to argue that much of Mendes’ earlier work is not considered “pop”: pop rock is still pop, and a lot of his hit singles cater to a pop-oriented sound (get ‘em while they’re young!), but the incorporation of soft rock on tracks like “Ruin,” “Mercy” or “Honest” on Illuminate made me believe that was the direction Mendes would pursue as he and his career grew, and who knows, maybe he still will in the future: after all, he’s only 19 going on 20, and if he’s going to be around for a while, he definitely has time to pursue several different directions.
Jeffrey’s favorite tracks from Shawn Mendes: “Lost in Japan,” “Nervous,” “Why,” “Where Were You in the Morning?,” “Particular Taste,” “Mutual,” and “Queen”