Shawn Mendes avoids the trappings of mawkish treacle and youthful naiveté with succinct, sincere, well-crafted songwriting.
I’ve been thinking about Shawn Mendes a lot lately. Actually, “thinking” is misleading; in just a few short days, I went from barely registering Mendes’s existence to bordering on a full-on obsession over him, his music, and his notoriety. It started with a piece in The Globe & Mail deconstructing “In My Blood”, published the day before he performed the song with Mylie Cyrus on stage at the 61st Grammy Awards. From there, I devoured Patrick Doyle’s insightful Rolling Stone profile, harrumphed at Jamison Cox’s Pitchfork review of Shawn Mendes, his 2018 third full-length, and engaged my colleague Mac Cameron in a Slack channel conversation around public attitudes about male- versus female-identifying pop stars. All the while, I had Shawn Mendes the album playing on endless repeat.
Released three months before Mendes turned twenty, Shawn Mendes the album was always going to be a reckoning. The one-time Vine star had parlayed a series of six-second video successes into a two-album career as a (somewhat) squeaky clean cherubian pop rocker, always with a guitar close at hand and unafraid of any selfie. Shawn Mendes had a lot of expectations riding on it, as both the transitional album between adolescence and adulthood and the critical third album that needed to step up and give Mendes the momentum to move his career forward.
As a neophyte soldier in the Mendes Army, I feel like a fraud making any direct comparisons between Shawn Mendes and its predecessors (2016’s Illuminate and Handwritten from 2015) and an even bigger fake trying to place it in the contemporary pop canon. As someone who doesn’t know his Post Malone from his Bruno Mars, liking a Shawn Mendes album is (*ahem*) perfectly wrong for my musical sensibilities. Which leads to the great existential debate currently raging in me: Why? Why, as a devoted fan of pop princesses like Carly Rae Jepsen, Robyn, and Taylor Swift, is it easier—and to some extent, the default—for me to dismiss the same kind of confectionary pop produced by a male-identifying performer? EM•MO•TION comfortably sits next to esoteric albums by the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sarah Davachi in my record collection, so why am I worried what the person next to me on the treadmill at the gym is going to think if they hear “Lost In Japan” leaking out of my headphones? I (clearly!) wouldn’t waste any time overthinking a gushing CRJ post, so why am I hesitating to publish this post while still in the process of writing it?
Maybe it’s due to feeling complicit in the chronic and historical underrepresentation of women in pop music, both behind and in front of the mixing boards. Maybe it’s that—in the extreme pendulum swing between the Rhiannas, Swifts, Drakes, and Malones—there’s no defined space for a somewhat socially awkward, cismale, white kid from the Canadian suburbs to foster a gender-diverse fanbase. Christmas album notwithstanding, it also took Justin Bieber three records and turning twenty to shed his teenage heartthrob status for a modicum of music industry cred for 2015’s Purpose. Still, before getting his record shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, there were also three years of “bad-boy” shenanigans and a retirement fund’s worth of tattoos to dispel any lingering reminders of his social media start.
Is the reason I can’t find other examples of overt Mendes love from other male-identifying music lovers and writers besides the Male Mendes Army Twitter account because I’m not trying hard enough? As of writing, Mendes’s Twitter-verified account has 21,003,395 followers; @MaleMendesArmy has 397. Make that 398. More likely, it’s probably down to the fact that, like most bullshit patriarchal constructs, the dominating male-influenced music industry’s fragile ego just doesn’t know what to do with a soft-spoken, down-to-earth, earnest performer who is not afraid to be both publicly vulnerable and subtle.
Yeah, yeah, Drake, Drake, blah, blah woes, woes—WHAT. EVER. Vulnerable? Maybe. But don’t tell me there’s anything subtle about Drake, The Weeknd, or Beiber at this point in their careers. There’s no way any of them could pull off sounding as endearing as Mendes does on the twitchy “Nervous”. His delivery makes me blush in much the same way I picture him flushing in the cheeks and avoiding direct eye contact while the object of his desire sits across the cafe table from him. Even when he’s singing about catching a flight for a night of Netflix and Chill with his infatuation on “Lost in Japan”, Mendes never sounds lurid, desperate, or libidinous. He sounds human; he feels totally sincere.
Artistically, he’s still got a ways to go. I was 100% willing to forgive the similarities between “Because I Had You” and Bieber’s “Love Yourself” because I assumed they shared Ed Sheeran as a songwriter. Wrong. As lovely as the acoustic strumming of “When You’re Ready” is, the song is nowhere near robust enough to close out a record that kicks the doors open with a walloping song like “In My Blood”. Speaking of which, that song’s power, simplicity and raw emotional weight are unequalled on the rest of Shawn Mendes, throwing the balance off on an otherwise solid, if predictable, long player.
“Youth”, his duet with Khalid, feels fully in Mendes’s wheelhouse, in style, subject matter, and tone. That song, along with “Nervous”, “In My Blood”, and “Perfect Taste” are the album’s high points, strategically placed in the running order to give Shawn Mendes momentum and see listeners and streamers all the way through its forty-five minute runtime. Though there’s no denying its overall anodyne sheen, I can’t concur with Cox’s predictable assertion that Shawn Mendes is unforgivably “beige”. Shawn Mendes is an album of ingenious pastel shading, neither bold or boring. It avoids the trappings of mawkish treacle and youthful naiveté with succinct, sincere, well-crafted songwriting that has both modern and timeless qualities. Taken as a whole, it sets Shawn Mendes up as a songwriter and performer soon-to-be reckoned with.