Monday, April 27, 2015

album review: 'handwritten' by shawn mendes

Now I may have said in my last episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN that Vine was one of the worst things in recent memory to happen to mainstream hip-hop, and I stand by that. But that's not to dismiss its growing impact on pop music as well, where certain acts, trending towards a younger demographic, have earned some success too. And you know, on some level it makes sense - as attention spans grow shorter and shorter with every generation, and pop music perpetually lodged at the age of early teens, it makes sense that Vine could spawn material perfectly tailored for that audience.

But that's not saying that music from these sources is essentially bad, or even tells the complete story. More of that comes through in the rising fortunes of Ed Sheeran, the singer-songwriting who is slowly taking more and more steps from dreary, white-guy-with-acoustic-guitar territory into tighter, more groove-heavy, more fiery material. And given how much he has dominated the charts over the past year and with singer-songwriters like Hozier pushing a more organic, rougher sound, it stands to reason that the music industry would look to cash in on this in the quickest way possible.

Thus we have Shawn Mendes, a Canadian teenager from just outside of Toronto who built a following on Vine and has been tearing a swathe through the Canadian charts. Keep in mind that our radio stations have to play a certain percentage of Canadian music, so I've heard of Shawn Mendes before this review - and honestly, I don't mind him. Sure, there are moments that could use some polish, but there was some raw talent here and he sure as hell sounds more ready for prime time than Justin Bieber ever did. And hell, if he's going to bite from Ed Sheeran's template and take the one element from Vine that I actually think could be a net positive - a sense of immediacy and pop-friend punch for his hooks - this debut could actually be worth a damn, even if he didn't write the whle record. So I checked out Handwritten - did it live up to expectations?

Well, in the sense that I barely had any expectations at all, I guess it lived up to them, but to be fair Handwritten by Shawn Mendes is decent enough, with enough good songs to redeem it, at least for me. But what frustrates me is that for as many times I listened through it, I couldn't help but see the glaring influences and the major label trying to synthesize another teen star tailor-fit for mainstream radio.

So let's talk about Shawn Mendes... and honestly, I'm a little conflicted on him. The easy comparison point is Justin Bieber in terms of vocals, and while he's nowhere near as slick or shows off the same range, Mendes has a rougher, folk-inspired cadence that I actually like more. More importantly, Mendes actually sounds sincere, earnest and ready for primetime - his voice still will need more time to build the richness and organic flavour that acoustic folk needs, but he does have some charisma. Granted, there are moments that do need polish - getting a firmer hand on that falsetto will come with training and time, and he's at least smart enough to stick to lower, fuller tones. But at this point we need to talk about the elephant in the room, the reason why Bieber is the easy comparison: because just like Bieber, Shawn Mendes really wants to be Justin Timberlake. Except while Bieber went through pop/R&B, Shawn Mendes is basically following Ed Sheeran following Justin Timberlake, filtered through a very teenage sensibility... or at least at some points he is. Because I sure as hell prefer that to the Sam Smith impression he does on tracks like 'I Don't Even Know Your Name', which strikes me as completely the wrong direction: Shawn Mendes has a looseness to his delivery that works with the tight grooves, and trying to add stiffer presentation does not work at all. The larger issue here comes in emotive presence, and this is where Shawn Mendes' age works against him, mostly because he can come across as having a very limited range - he conveys exuberance and lovestruck sincerity well, but when the songs aim for framing that's a little more complicated, he runs into problems.

And this is where we need to address the songwriting pretty early - and look, it's the same case of when I reviewed 5 Seconds of Summer's debut album. It's very clear that Shawn Mendes is targeting a much younger audience than me, and thus a lot of these songs will probably resonate much stronger with said audience. And this is speaking as somebody who's not a fan of the whole 'white guy with acoustic guitar' subgenre as it is, although I will say I can buy Mendes' sincerity a hell of a lot more than I have ever bought into John Mayer. But when the situations get more complicated, the writing doesn't always do enough to compensate. I can excuse 'Stitches', the song where his tripping all over himself in love leads to rough consequences, but 'Strings' tries to draw the childhood romance way too early early and it just comes across as awkward and creepy, especially considering it's talking about more of a serious commitment. And 'Aftertaste' is even worse, a song slamming an ex who dumped him and now is regretting it, and it's hard to buy into the raw pettiness of the song. At least on the duet 'Air' he's smart enough to frame the situation from both sides and showing how this couple really shouldn't be together, but his duet partner Astrid sounds even younger than him, unfortunately to the song's detriment. Outside of that, we have songs like 'Never Be Alone' and 'A Little Too Much' that are clearly laser-targeted for marketing to his teen fanbase, with the latter playing the One Direction 'What Makes You Beautiful' card which always rubs me the wrong way in playing on insecurities, and between that we have an assortment of acoustic love songs and yearning ballads of varying quality, with 'Something Big' easily the best track simply because it actually has a pulse. Yeah, 'I Don't Even Know Your Name' has some presence, but I have a hard time buying into such heavy passion to someone who he has never met and barely even seen!

And this feeds into the most frustrating thing with this album: the instrumentation. Put aside some of the clumsy songwriting and forced rhymes, I went into this album at least hoping 'Something Big' would be indicative of more energy on this record, and we did not get that. Most of this record is stripped back piano and guitars, and to his credit while the melodies come through beyond the thicker, heavier percussion and drums and there is some texture, they're rarely anything that special or energetic or that you wouldn't hear with more innovative progressions on an Ed Sheeran record or an acoustic cut from Justin Timberlake a decade ago. That's not saying there aren't moments I like - the acoustic groove on 'Stitches', the whistles against the gentle and smooth guitars on 'Never Be Alone', and the fast-paced rollicking strums of 'Strings' or the springier 'Aftertaste'. But it's rare that this record developes any sort of edge or kick to it, let alone the tempo to come close - the biggest would be the bombast of 'Something Big' with the horns and rougher breakdown and jangling percussion and heavy kickdrums, and even with that, the production is so smooth and slick that I get no bite or fire to this album. To some extent, it feels as if I'm getting a sanitized version of Ed Sheeran doing Justin Timberlake, and like it or not, Shawn Mendes has work to do before he gets to that level.

So in the end... look, I don't hate this album, and I'm sure members of its target audience will love it, but it's hard for me not to see this record as a pretty thin attempt by the label to cash in on a Vine star who might sound mostly ready for primetime vocally but not quite have the songwriting or compositional skills to get there - and the alarming thing is that the arsenal of songwriters behind him can't fix that. Now to some extent this album does aim a little lower when it comes to its simple love songs, but much of this album doesn't stand out to me, especially on the dragging back half. It didn't quite put me to sleep in the same way Troye Sivan's record did, but outside of 'Something Big', this record barely sticks with me. I'm thinking a strong 5/10, and only a recommendation if you're looking for the more sentimental and quiet side of Ed Sheeran or you're too young to dig into mid-2000s Justin Timberlake. Otherwise... nah, I'd skip this.

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