On ‘Shawn Mendes,’ a Blooming Pop Star Finally Sounds Like Himself (REVIEW)
When Shawn Mendes first entered pop radio in 2015, so came the comparisons, most commonly to some of the planet’s leading male pop superstars: Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran.
So, with the Friday (May 25) release of the Canadian star’s vibrant third LP, Shawn Mendes, let’s compare for a moment: Mendes is 19 years old. At 19, Bieber was still very much a tween-centric artist, riding the high of “Boyfriend” and “As Long As You Love Me,” and a cool two years from his invitation to the big-boy pop conversation. When Sheeran was 19, he was almost completely unknown, having not yet released his smash debut, +.
Mendes is already deeply entrenched in the mainstream sphere, selling out Madison Square Garden and palling around with Taylor Swift at award shows. Now, he’s newly anchored by a self-titled LP that bleeds with maturity and extends the “Stitches” singer as a worthy young songwriter who has become exceedingly valuable to this generation of pop.
Will this album — with heavy-hitting co-writes from Julia Michaels, Ryan Tedder and Mendes’ preferred studio partner, Teddy Geiger, as well as Sheeran himself — produce three Top 15 hits, as did its predecessor, Illuminate? It doesn’t seem impossible considering Mendes’ cresting popularity, coupled with the fact that there’s a load of replayability here.
Other than “In My Blood,” a full-bodied and genuinely anthemic lead single, the album plays tight to the chest with its melodies. Most songs are rhythmically driven, with sparse guitar plucks that give way to hooky bass lines, in a kind of “Prince tribute meets Selena Gomez’s ‘Bad Liar’” aesthetic. The style is consistent and threaded throughout the 14-track album, which details a young man wrestling with the emotional tolls of his first truly adult romances.
If any track will force you onto the dance floor, it’s “Nervous,” an addictive 20/20-era Justin Timberlake reprisal fueled by a bright bass-and-drum heartbeat. “Lost In Japan" also taps a bit of funk, and is sweet and sexy enough thanks to Mendes’ understated rasp, though one can’t help but wonder how this number would’ve soared with a more swaggy artist like Bruno Mars on the mic. “Where Were You in the Morning?” is a serviceable R&B jam directed at a young lady who apparently left Mendes high and dry in the a.m. after a night of… Monopoly, perhaps?
“Fallin’ All in You,” co-written by Sheeran, is so stylistically akin to Sheeran’s own work that it plays like a cover, but still, it's a melty mid-tempo jam with oodles of radio potential.
But like Illuminate, Mendes is unquestionably top-heavy and overly inobtrusive; while pleasant, the back half of the record doesn’t particularly thrill, beyond the shrewd pair-up with Khalid on the ostensibly woke earworm “Youth” — though the hook (“As long as I wake up today / You can’t take my youth away”) is a tad nonsensical. And the anticipated duet with Michaels, “Like to Be You,” feels unfinished, or at least too simplistic.
No criticism, however, will undo the fact that Mendes is clearly blooming as an artist — as the floral album art may suggest — and not precisely in the direction of his millennial pop peers. On Shawn Mendes, there is a solo guest producer, used for “Like To Be You” — his name is John Mayer. That’s the career trend that might make the most sense to Mendes as he enters his twenties and listens to more of the music of the world.
For now, he’s begun to sound like himself, and that’s just fine.