Shawn Mendes has managed to hold a consistent notch on the pop charts since his inescapable 2015 hit “Stitches.” I have been a loyal supporter since I saw him during the Dallas stop of his Illuminate World Tour. While I sat in the nosebleeds, simply satisfied with breathing the same air as him, he managed to seem as if he were singing directly to me. The show felt so inclusive and energetic, but I’ve never gotten that notion from his studio albums. His first two efforts “Handwritten” and “Illuminate” were solid pop and totally listenable but still, they felt so inauthentic. They performed insanely well — both debuted at the number one spot of the Billboard 200. Since he’d established himself as a household name, I expected his self-titled 2018 release to be the truest representation of himself. I didn’t expect a “Can’t Be Tamed” era because let’s be honest, Shawn really is that aloof boy next door type (causing Twitter to keep him in its meme rotation). His self-titled project was a clear improvement but forgettable. The Grammy-nominated “In My Blood” is a Troy Bolton “Bet On It” moment and “Why” is the classic blue-eyed soul ballad. The album felt like only the shell of his true artistic vision, at best.
I’m just gonna skip over the forbidden summer of “Señorita” (with a quick shout out to “If I Can’t Have You”) and get right to the forbidden year of 2020. Shawn had been pretty quiet since closing his long-winded self-titled world tour (and yes, I saw him during this tour too — at his stop in Des Moines) until he stuns with the release dates of “Wonder,” the single and album, on September 30. I was thoroughly surprised by the production of the single. In fact, Shawn’s approach to production went through a complete metamorphosis with his 4th album.
Mendes made a complete 180 from his boy with a guitar image and explores explosive, orchestral unpredictable sounds. Each track keeps you on your toes, although the twists lose a bit of its effect once you realize nearly every song on the album is structured in that same manner. I applaud Shawn’s exploration because his self-titled album lacked flavor. Where “Wonder” makes up in production value, it lacks transparency. Mendes continues across as a perfectly packaged Ken Doll, even as he bears his innermost feelings of insecurity and fear of loneliness on “Song For No One” and the only song on the album he wrote by his lonesome, “Can’t Imagine.”
He shines with “Always Been You” which seems like a response to girlfriend Camila Cabello’s “Easy.” He serenades his loyal fans with his familiar optimism on the bubbly “Look Up At The Stars” (seriously, this song feels like a walk in the park in 70-degree sunshine). He’s at his strongest with “24 Hours” and “Dream.” Both illustrate the purity of experiencing a gripping first love. Even on the album’s high points, there is nothing unique about the music Mendes making. Although it is filled with colorful, deliberate displays reminiscent of dreamy romantic era ideals and grandiose fanfare, it still falls flat. But ultimately the album’s downfall is its lyrical content. Each track is riddled with recycled euphemisms, so listeners don’t have to do the work of assigning meaning to them. I think that is what makes music interesting — when an artist’s lyrics are so personal and specific to their own experiences, outside ears must analyze and pick apart each harmony wrapped anecdote. Mendes claims his album was inspired by his slow-burn romance with Cabello and his own introspective soul searching, but as I listened through “Wonder,” I couldn’t help but go back to the opening lyrics on the album’s lead single, “I wonder, do I speak my truth / or do I filter how I feel?”
Undoubtedly, this is Shawn’s most intriguing album and it features some of his best work so far. Still, I feel there is something missing. Mendes is in such a fragile position — one mere tweet from cancellation from the pop-stratosphere and he has let that pressure compromise his vulnerability. The older he gets, the more evident it becomes that his perfectionism is stunting his artistic growth. Mendes is aware of this though — on “Monster” he contemplates the consequences of making mistakes in the public eye. He croons, “I wonder why I’m so afraid of saying something wrong / I never said I was a saint” on the title track. “Wonder” presents itself as a coming of age story, perhaps Mendes is still on the journey of self-discovery. His self-awareness and slow but steady artistic progression hints there is still hope of cementing himself as more than just another generic pop singer.