Against all odds, the self-titled Shawn Mendes album is not only worth a listen, it’s bloody great. Sam Brooks reviews.
To many, the success of Shawn Mendes can seem bizarre. He has a huge fanbase amongst teenage girls because he looks and sounds like he’d only ever say nice things to and about you. He has the gormless appeal of a boyband member, his voice is not particularly large but it is distinctive, and if you’re above a certain age you’ve probably only heard his music by accident in a shop.
You’d expect him to be the guy you disapprove of taking your [insert significant female relations here] to the ball, not a pop star. And you definitely wouldn’t expect him to have one absolute killer single (‘There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back’ is a perfect blend of dance, pop and rock that we barely get anymore), a few good songs and now, a genuine stunner of a pop album. But, against all odds, the self-titled Shawn Mendes album is a stunner.
I’m as shocked as you are, and I’m even more shocked that I’m totally in love with this album. Let me digress and explain, briefly: I have an oft-mocked love for women in music – to the point where at one point in my teens my music collection was 100% women with no men, and even now you’d be hard-pressed to find a male pop star I was enthusiastic about. Ed Sheeran? Never heard of him. Justin Timberlake? You mean Jessica Biel’s husband who is on SNL way too much, right? Michael Jackson? Oh, Janet Jackson’s brother. (This is an exaggeration of my lack of knowledge of and indifference to male pop stars, but not by much.)
Then I came across this clip:
Look at his little stupid face! Look at his doofy hair! Look at his lady-deer brown eyes! Look at him (maybe pretending to) play the guitar! Listen to his little voice falter a bit! I want to hate him. He’s just standing there with a guitar and the fifty insane hooks that this song has! But then he walks down to the audience, the key changes, he barely strokes an A chord and I’m fully hooked in. Why do I like this? This isn’t Tori Amos! This isn’t even Amos Lee, a man who I have heard exists!
Alas, a killer pop song is a killer pop song. And ‘There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back’ is an absolute killer song, one of the best of last year; you can’t deny its power. But I was sceptical about Mendes – sure, he could release one great song, anybody can do that, but could he deliver? And shit, he has.
Would he go the Bieber route of leaning into Usher-style R&B? Or would he continue with his one-boy-and-his-guitar shtick that has actually served him pretty well up until this point?
Turns out, it’s a little bit of both – and the split suits Mendes well.
The success of the album really shouldn’t be a surprise, especially when you look at the writing and production credits. Hitmaker Teddy Geiger, who has worked with Mendes and penned/produced some of his greatest hits (the aforementioned ‘There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back’, ‘Treat You Better’, ‘Mercy’), has writing credits on most of the album. John Mayer produced a song; Joel Little produced a song; Julia Michaels co-wrote one song (which is delightfully recognisable as a Julia Michaels ditty) and duets on another; Ed Sheeran co-wrote one song; and mid-aughts hitmaker Ryan Tedder wrote two. Those are some stone-cold hitmaking names, and this is an album that didn’t come to play, it came to make a mark.
It seems odd to describe an album that is this slight and gentle as killer. None of the songs kick into anything resembling uptempo, Mendes never goes above a pained croon on any of the album’s 15 songs, and you can’t imagine any of the songs filling the dancefloor, unless it’s 5 am and a sad bartender is feeling pretty introspective cleaning the bar up by himself. (In saying that, the Khalid duet – ‘Youth’ – is ripe for a radio-friendly club remix. Have that idea for free, club remixers!)
Even among the gentleness, there’s enough variety to keep these 14 songs from feeling samey. There’s the brilliant Julia Michaels duet ‘Like to Be You’, which lets both singers showcase a shaky, shy vulnerability, the kind which we rarely get in mainstream pop and also features the no-scope headshot couplet “I don’t know what it’s like to be you/I don’t know what it’s like but I’m dying to”. And on the opposite side of things, there’s the tipsy come-hither ditty ‘Lost in Japan’, where Mendes for the first time sounds like an of-age, semi-mature human being and it suits him. It suits him really well, you guys.
None of the songs are as arena-filling as ‘There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back’ (do you get that I really like this song? I really like this song!), but they’re full of hooks and they stick in your brain, and none of them overstays their welcome. Not a single song is over four minutes long, and several are even under two minutes – they come, they dive into your brain immediately and rest there. The best example is ‘Because I Had You’, one of the Tedder co-writes – a quick rabbit punch of a song, with a chorus that turns the very locked-and-stickered diary rhymes of new/too/do/you into something immediate and nearly profound – but each song has at least one flourish that makes it special.
Like all the best pop stars who don’t have particularly huge voices that have come before him, Mendes plays beautifully to the limits of his voice. His thin rasp gives everything he sings a pained and raw-throated emotion; it’s an effect that he deploys well – like Britney’s croak, it’s immediately recognisable once you hear it. When there are so many chefs in the mix, a distinctive voice is a huge asset, and it’s the best tool that Mendes has to deploy.
I shouldn’t like this music, it falls so far outside my demographic that it makes me worry that something’s been permanently adjusted in my brain. And a lot of the songs fall into the Sheeran trap of blaming a girl for all a man’s problems. But Shawn Mendes makes the best case thus far (except… you know what song I’m going to mention, so let’s not) for Mendes as a significant popstar with staying power. He combines the best parts of early Bieber with the more appealing parts of Ed Sheeran, and has one of the most strategically varied songwriting and production armies of anybody in pop music. He’s not going anywhere, and this album makes me glad of that – more music like this is only ever going to be a good thing.
Plus, look at his dumb stupid beautiful confusing face!
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.