Mendes feels like he’s just getting started.
Shawn Mendes knows he’s cute. He has to. The Canadian kicked off his career posting micro-clips of himself covering pop hits on Vine, a website whose primary purpose (as far as I know) is for swoopy-haired teens to post videos of themselves acting adorable and gain millions of swooning followers. Most Vine stars don’t do much; you don’t need any real “talent” to make it on Vine, just a cheery disposition and a cute face. But Mendes’ early videos revealed an extraordinary, fluid soul voice that his subsequent music career puts front and center – though, I suspect, he wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular as he is now if he didn’t have a pretty face.
The miracle of his two surprisingly solid solo albums, Handwritten and this year’s Illuminate, is that he – contrary to the purpose of the site that spawned him – doesn’t rely on his cuteness. There are no cloying affectations here, no vague streams of never-leave-your-side promises. While someone like Charlie Puth trades in boyfriendable relatability, the aesthetic of being someone you could come home and curl up with every night, Mendes is cold and detached. No less than two songs here deal with him telling his squeeze she could do better. And the breakup songs are angry and bitter, though not so possessive as to make Mendes seem like a villain.
It’s not much fun, alas, and though there’s plenty of high-quality songwriting here, there was a bubblegum spark on Handwritten that’s absent here. While Mendes’ brand of pop has always centered around somber singer-songwriter stuff, there were at least a few jumpy sing-along songs on Handwritten, especially the great single “Stitches.” Illuminate is relentlessly slow, driven by piano and faintly bluesy guitar. There’s a bit of a ‘50s pop vibe, similar to what Puth and Meghan Trainor trade in, but there’s no smile, no flourish, just a whole lot of heartbreak.
Luckily, Mendes’ writers – headed by Scott Harris, author of the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down” – are creative at thinking up ways to manifest that heartbreak. “Don’t Be A Fool” evokes Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like A Bird” in its declaration of love undercut by the author’s awareness of their own unreliability. But while Furtado never gave a reason why she’d only fly away, Mendes is “always on the move,” likely touring, and knows he won’t have time to give her the attention she deserves. An open relationship would suit him better, which “No Promises” makes clear.
Most devastating of all is “Three Empty Words,” an almost Beatles-esque portrait of a relationship without the spark. They still do all the same things together, still say all the same things to each other, but something’s missing and neither acknowledges it for fear of losing what they have (“Darling, I’ll go first,” he sighs). It’s a stunningly nuanced and complex pop song, undercut by bits of steel guitar and choral backing vocals that imbue it with a bit of Presleyan religion.
There’s always a small flock of backing vocals behind Mendes, but they’re unusually low in the mix, sometimes barely audible. I wondered throughout what the record might sound like with a little bit more pizzazz in the arrangements. If I ever met Mendes I’d refer him to Kuk Harrell, the master vocal arranger whose swooning doo-wop choirs were a key part of what made Rihanna’s ANTI so gorgeous. The sparseness of Illuminate suits Mendes, but his voice would probably sound good in most environments. Mendes hasn’t quite been able to capitalize on the pop-star momentum of “Stitches,” and I fear future records will thus take fewer production and songwriting risks. That’s a shame. Mendes, only 18, feels like he’s just getting started.