Thursday, September 29, 2016

album review: 'illuminate' by shawn mendes

Oh, I haven't been looking forward to this.

Hell, anybody who has been watching Billboard BREAKDOWN or my last review already knows that, but let's skip back a year to chart out how we got here. Believe it or not, when I covered Handwritten last year I was going in with some high expectations, or at least a hope that Mendes could rise above his Vine star origins to flesh out actual songs. For the most part, that didn't really happen, which is why Handwritten fell below a pass for me, as he tried emulating Justin Timberlake by way of Ed Sheeran that lacked the interesting instrumentation or witty writing to get there. But still, a part of me wanted to root for this kid, and I still hold that 'Something Big' is a damn good song.

But ever since then, my opinion on Shawn Mendes has been plummeting in record time, as more singles have exposed flaws and issues that I was hoping Mendes could avoid. His writing was slipping perilously close to the self-aggrandizing douchebaggery that is symptomatic of the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' moniker, and the increasingly sterile production and delivery was not helping, all the more evidence Mendes was being pushed by his handlers in that direction. And from what I had heard going into Illuminate... well, suffice to say I was gearing up for a real disaster, even if I had some hope this fellow Canadian might be able to pull something together on his sophomore project. So what happened?

Nothing good, that's for damn sure. Let's get this out of the way: Illuminate by Shawn Mendes sucks. Most certainly a sophomore slump, it's the sort of bad album I find absolutely infuriating, the sort of gutless, sterile pablum that seems weaponized by his handlers and cowriters to hit his target demographic - and yet for a significant portion of this album they can't even get that right! One Direction made some shameless pandering nonsense, but Shawn Mendes' brand is much more insufferable to me, mostly because it's trying to present itself as thoughtful and heartfelt instead of the brazen insincere ripoff of Ed Sheeran that it is. 

And to explain this, we need to start with the big underlying reason why this album doesn't work that stretches across every aspect of this record: framing. It's a concept that on the surface is pretty basic - it's how the ideas and stories on this album are presented - but really doesn't get enough conversation because it's often much easier to focus on what was said than how it was said. And while there are plenty of problems with the 'what' on this album, especially in the writing - we'll get to it - the main underlying issue is Shawn Mendes himself. It's not that he isn't sincere in what he's singing about - I don't doubt he believes everything he wrote and performed on this record - but that sincerity can be badly misplaced next to some of the subject matter, or can come across as a lot uglier than it should be, or at the very least is inflated to proportions that don't match the stakes of the song. Now you can normally excuse the last one - he's young, there's a lot of big emotions here, but bombast needs to be backed up by a performer who can handle it, and Mendes often isn't. Forget the annoyingly thin falsetto or how his attempts to present raw emotion sound like he's got a bad head cold, my issue is that soulful warble he tries that just has no gravitas or swell, even with the backing choir trying desperately to lend it strength - that 'better than he can' at the end of 'Treat You Better' is perhaps the worst example, he just sounds pissy! Furthermore, there's no sense of subtlety to these tracks, which only serves to further emphasize how limited his dramatic range is and how flat so many of these songs feel.

And that's a big problem that comes through in the writing - and there's no way around it, the lyrics on this record piss me off. At its best, it's sloppy: 'Mercy' is probably the best song on the album and even it has the gem how he'll sacrifice his life twice - which I'm fairly certain is physically impossible and just rings as a less interesting version of Bruno Mars' 'Grenade'. Or take 'No Promises', a song about a one-night stand with one of the lazier hooks as he asks for no promises because 'we won't keep our promises' - sloppy rhyming aside, it shows an unwillingness to take any responsibility that runs through this record and really gets on my nerves. 'Three Empty Words' is a prime example of that - the relationship has stalled out, they can't even muster the will to fight anymore, and yet instead of just ending it, Mendes is just going to stop saying 'I love you' because anything more might hurt - dude, you'd probably be doing both of you a favor, sometimes relationships don't work out, just have some testicles and end it! Of course, then you have the actual breakup songs on this record like 'Don't Be A Fool' and 'Honest', which are some of the most insincere exercises in cliched emotional manipulation I've heard in a while. In the former case, he tells the girl not to be a fool and hold onto affection - she'll find another man someday - and yet within the track he tells her to kiss him and says that he does hope he really likes her and wishes he could be there for her, but it needs to end now for the best - how shameless are you? And 'Honest' is even worse, where against a bizarrely chipper melody he says it's not her fault and he'll probably regret it but she deserves better and should just move on - you know, being honest doesn't mean you're not being an asshole! And what's truly weird is when you place it opposite a song where he is supposedly falling in love such as 'Like This', it's played as melancholic and torturous as he supposedly can't get enough of her honesty - even though on that song he pre-emptively negs the girl by saying 'she's not even drop-dead gorgeous'!

And this is where I have a hard time determining the level of incompetence here, whether the writing is just lazy - which it is, you'd be hard-pressed to find much detail or colour to the metaphors or symbolism on this record if you find it at all - or there's just a fundamental misunderstanding of how relationships work. But stepping outside of that, the level of self-absorbed douchebaggery that bleeds from the writing is inescapable. The opening track 'Ruin' has him pining for an ex, and even though he's not trying to ruin her happiness, he also wants her to know that he's 'the only one for you'. And that presumptive nature definitely comes through on 'Treat You Better', where even despite the girl saying she loves her current boyfriend, Mendes tells her 'he's not right for you' and that she should stop 'wasting time on all your wasted crying' when she could be with him instead! And then there's 'Bad Reputation', which besides a healthy dose of slut shaming by proxy Shawn Mendes assures this girl nobody really understand what she's been through but that he'd like to see what's 'underneath' anyway  - WOW, talk about the definition of the ugly 'white knighting' stereotype. Or take 'Patience', where he doesn't like that this older girl doesn't want to hook up with him or make it serious - but instead of making a stand to end a potentially bad situation, he keeps on making 'the same mistakes' even as he 'loses his patience' - why does all of this writing stink of insincerity and laziness? Because then we hit the tipping point on 'Understand', where he wonders if he's changing but through spoken word monologue midway through assures us that as long as he stays true to himself it's okay! And people thought Mick Jenkins' debut was trite, condescending, and self-serving!

And you know, so much of this could possibly be excused if the instrumentation and production added texture or colour to these songs... but instead we get production analogous to James Bay by way of Charlie Puth. The basslines are formless, the guitars occasionally pick up a bit of texture like on the warmer acoustics of 'Like This' or the slightly lo-fi pickup of 'Patience' or the rougher pickup of 'Honest' but for the most part are liquid and tepid, and nearly always the heavier percussion is layered on top instead of supporting it. You occasionally get stabs at more vintage soul in some of the piano that fall hilariously flat - to say nothing of the outright ripoff of the main melody line for 'Don't Be A Fool' from 'Tennessee Whiskey', last covered by Chris Stapleton - but overall, the larger problem is how clean and utterly flat the production feels. At least John Mayer would let his guitars pick up some warmth, whereas so much of this record either tries for grooves it can't sustain or melodies too painfully basic to be memorable. And that's before you get the hilarious 'sex song' 'Lights On', which given its ridiculously chipper presentation I can't remotely take seriously and is the furthest thing from sexy! And yet outside of that there's no humour and barely any levity, which implies most of these songs are to be taken seriously or framed as romantic when in reality they don't even come close. 

So to conclude, this is an album that shows Shawn Mendes growing up into the insufferable and pretentious 'white guy with acoustic guitar' archetype that we've all come to know and despise, with music as underwritten, shallow and alternately as tedious and infuriating as they come. This is not an album written because of an artistic impulse to tell a story, or even just to pick up chicks - it's committee-driven slurry that's pumped to a teenage audience who deserve a lot better. And if this album was intended to Illuminate anything, it's that I was wrong in giving this kid any credit - sure, be yourself, but take a lesson from The Weeknd or even Ed Sheeran and at least own it when you're being a lazy, entitled dickpiston. 3/10, no way in hell I'm recommending this, especially not to his fans, and hopefully he'll end up back on Vine where we can ignore him in peace.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Mark for saying everything I thought about this atrocious album. I heard Treat You Better and instantly wanted to throw up on first listen.
    On an unrelated note, I know that you (like me) are a former Glee fan so I was wondering if you have read/plan on reading Sorry Not Sorry?