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Shawn Mendes - Shawn Mendes Music Album Reviews

Shawn Mendes - Shawn Mendes Music Album Reviews
On his third album, the former Vine star grows into a persona that’s playful, gently libidinous, and safely menace-free, but his music too often falls on the wrong side of beige.

If Shawn Mendes wasn’t born and raised in the Toronto suburbs, he might’ve been tank-grown in an underground lab at a major label’s behest. He’s a genial, grounded young performer with a body “somewhere between fitness model and party trick”—John Mayer’s words, not mine—and a deep passion for adult contemporary pop-rock. He takes hundreds of pictures with fans in a single sitting without batting an eye. And when you hear hit singles like “Stitches” and “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” it’s like you’re watching the cutest counsellor at your summer camp grab an acoustic guitar and surprise a horde of pre-teens with his heavenly pipes.

Mendes’ path to upper-echelon stardom began with jaunty covers of mid-’10s hits on Vine, and his first two albums—2015’s boyish Handwritten and a more muscular 2016 follow-up, Illuminate—channeled inoffensive, mercenary songwriters working in the same vein: Mayer, Ed Sheeran, Jason Mraz. Shawn Mendes, his third and most ambitious full-length, breaks the mold by suggesting alternative paths Mendes might walk. The guitar is still the focal point of his attack, whether it’s vigorously strummed (anthemic lead single “In My Blood”) or ever-so-gently picked. But he dips a toe into modern pop with help from expert collaborators like Julia Michaels and Ryan Tedder on “Nervous” and “Particular Taste,” and he dirties up his goody-two-shoes with a handful of smoldering, grown-and-sexy dalliances.

The songs in the latter category capture Mendes at his most engaging and mature; you hear them and understand why Mayer told Zane Lowe that Mendes is “John Mayer 2.0, without the weird software viruses.” Sublime single “Lost in Japan” is air-fried pop-funk, light and crispy with just a whisper of grease. It uses Mendes’ youth and fame to his advantage: It’s not hard to imagine him—rich, horny, and unoccupied—chartering a jet into Tokyo for a quick hookup and a stroll through the cherry blossoms.

The bleary-eyed “Where Were You in the Morning?” works the same way. He’s old enough for someone to stay the night, but naïve enough to feel crushed when he wakes up alone. “And I thought you really felt this/When we were talking about breakfast,” he sings, sitting up in bed and scratching his head. “You made it seem like we connected/I guess I just didn’t expect this.” He can put together a winning ballad in the same style: “Why” is a bruised ode to a lover (whose identity is a hot topic among fans) that coasts on sandpapered vocal texture and a lovely, unexpected vocoder bloom.

There’s a compelling young adult behind this music, someone who’s playful and libidinous without projecting any menace. It’s too bad that this depth of character is absent from the rest of Shawn Mendes. Meeting these songs head-on and digesting them is less fulfilling than sniffing out hat-tips and moves cribbed from other artists. There’s little distinguishing the gasping, conversational “Nervous” from recent Selena Gomez hits like “Hands to Myself” and “Bad Liar,” all of which were co-written by Michaels. You wouldn’t need credits to guess that “Fallin’ All in You” came from Sheeran, in part because Mendes so closely mimics his vocal style. “Because I Had You” knocks its soft, muted guitar and chorus melody from Justin Bieber’s repellent “Love Yourself,” another Sheeran product. (The highlights aren’t immune, either: I caught myself singing Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” over the chords underpinning “Why.”)

This looming sense of familiarity extends past the album’s musical elements and into its writing. Shawn Mendes is populated with stock characters: the girl who’s a little too high on her own supply, the girl worth waiting forever for, the girl who got away. “Particular Taste” draws up a free spirit who answers phone calls with questions and “only dances when it’s Kanye.” (Anyone who refuses to get up for anything other than “Lift Yourself” must be truly eccentric.) Nothing about these songs belongs uniquely to Mendes, and you can imagine them being recorded by anyone: Nick Jonas, Charlie Puth, a random choice from the One Direction diaspora. These are exactly the kind of B- and C-list contemporaries on whom Mendes is supposed to have a head start.

Transforming average material into compelling, distinctive pop is a tall order for any would-be star, let alone one who’s been asked to undergo all of their artistic development in a viral-fame Instant Pot and doesn’t turn 20 until August. It takes more than sheer talent and good will; you need personality and perspective, the kind of intangibles that develop with time. Mendes deserves credit for recognizing the limits of youthful exuberance and proactively broadening his approach. But Shawn Mendes leaves a key question unanswered: What makes this guy different?


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