Monday, May 28, 2018

album review: 'shawn mendes' by shawn mendes

Yep, let's do this again.

So if you all remember the last time I talked about Shawn Mendes in a full review, it didn't go well by any stretch of the imagination, mostly because he had taken the promising upbeat Ed Sheeran-knockoff tones into the most blandly-produced, insufferably written and performed acoustic pop I've heard this decade. Let me reiterate that for those in the back: Illuminate by Shawn Mendes is a bad record, and 'Treat You Better' is one of the worst hits of the 2010s, by far the worst hit song of 2016. And yes, I'll freely admit my disappointment bled into that review, because Shawn Mendes had potential coming out of Handwritten - hell, so long as he had consistent momentum on his songs he could deliver quality - but doubling down on the 'nice guy with acoustic guitar' template was about the worst potential direction he could take. And while a fair amount to blame lands on Teddy Geiger, ultimately it was Mendes who stuck with this direction.

And then something happened. Maybe it was the success of the tacked-on bonus track 'There's Nothing Holding Me Back' that actually restored a glimmer of hope Mendes could deliver again, maybe it was a renewed focus on expanding his sound instead of doubling down on the worst tropes of his genre, but Mendes' newest singles were heading in a slicker, more groove-centric direction and I couldn't complain. Yeah, I wasn't pleased to see a collaborating credit with Julia Michaels on this self-titled release, but if Mendes was going the way of Charlie Puth in tightening up his sound and writing, I was willing to give him another chance. So Shawn Mendes fans, I'm burying the hatchet and going in with some optimism - he's got nowhere to go but up with me, so what did we get from Shawn Mendes?

Folks, I'm honestly not sure how much I can say about this one - and really, if I didn't have any infamous history with Shawn Mendes, this would be a record that belongs on the Trailing Edge. Yes, it's better than Illuminate for pivoting hard out of the dark sourness that permeated too much of that record for a sharper acoustic-groove style... but by doing so it only exposes how much Shawn Mendes is chronically in debt to artists who bring more character and flair to this style. And while Ed Sheeran is the most obvious comparison point - when he shows up to co-write 'Fallin' All In You' Mendes winds up sounding even more like a cipher - it's a little alarming how little distinctive flair three albums in Mendes has created for himself, which leads to some decent pop songs, but ones that can feel increasingly anonymous with every listen.

Now granted, I find it hard to directly blame Mendes for this: he's trying to lean into more organic, expressive territory in his delivery and he's surprisingly credible when he gets groovier production like on 'Lost In Japan', which gives him the firmer multi-tracking to carry that groove. And hell, I'll give him points for at least trying to sell more raw delivery without treading into the plaintive, sour territory that I didn't like on previous records... but let's not mince words, his tremulous delivery definitely does push it for me, especially in his shaky falsetto, which quivers on the cusp of breaking and while it might be appropriate on some of the more romantic or introspective songs, it doesn't really project confidence. And to be somewhat fair here, Mendes making more vulnerable music is a good lane - doubling down on being the 'sensitive guy' does give him some character and certainly shows a bit more maturity, more on this in a bit - but typically if you're going in this lane in a genre like emo there's a core of catharsis or inner strength, and Mendes only really seems to have it when he makes slick dance floor jam. I'd say I appreciate the irony, but it seems like a bit of a shame the record can't make the intimate moments hit harder for me.

Granted, some of that does play into the writing, and let me give Mendes some real credit here: this album pivots hard away from the emotionally manipulative but basic as hell content that irked me so much about Illuminate. Oh, it's just as nakedly sentimental, but maybe a little more maturity and introspection cleared up some of those darker clouds because the writing feels sharper across the board. Take 'Where Were You In The Morning', a post-hookup song where the girl takes off in the morning which could have very quickly felt sour or bitter, but Mendes plays it with more dejected confusion here, at least acknowledging she could have had a good reason. And that sober second thought of consideration is a good tempering impulse and shows him trying show more empathy to what Julia Michaels is thinking on 'Like To Be You' or the relationship that might need to be severed on 'Mutual', or even trying to push past the pettiness of 'Because I Had You' where she's moved on after he dumped her and he needs to reconcile that. Admittedly, that song gets a shade too close to jealous petulance for my taste - as does the kiss-off of 'Queen', which I liked a lot better when it was sung by Charlie Puth and was called 'Attention', but those are definitely the minority in comparison to the sweeter hookups like 'Lost In Japan' or 'Particular Taste' - although I will say that 'When You're Ready' plays a little too hard into waiting for a girl for ten years to 'come around', when the smarter step would be to move on himself. So okay, there are definitely enough moments where Mendes should step up and show more maturity, but overall the tone of the writing is a little more measured... but that might be more because the writing just doesn't have a lot of detail or flair to it. I mentioned Ed Sheeran in 'Fallin' All In You' because at least he has a distinctive cadence and style to his poetry, whereas Mendes doesn't quite get there yet, almost demanding more detail to flesh out his stories. It's one reason I'm also a bit more forgiving of songs like 'Youth' and 'In My Blood' which I've already talked about on Billboard BREAKDOWN, because not only do they feel outside of the relationships described, but delve into different points of introspection both about his anxiety and the increased targeting of youth bucking and hardening against tragedy.

Granted, Mendes building more personality is not really helped by the production and instrumentation here, where once again his main collaborator is Teddy Geiger and if there are issues that persist from Illuminate, they are here. The fact is that for as much as 'Lost In Japan' plays off some piano keys, synths and a pretty slick, Justin Timberlake-esque bass groove, it's really the exception that picks up more character and colour compared to the desaturated liquid guitars, overly stiff and programmed drum machines, or hell, even a general overemphasis on percussion as a whole. And it's particularly frustrating here because with the more liquid bass definition you wish these mixes picked up more melody beyond the vocal line - take 'Nervous' or 'Particular Taste', with their really solid main grooves... but the bass and guitar melodies feel starved for more colour and emphasis to balance the drums or drum machines right at the front, or at least seem like more than squealing fragments. Then you get songs like 'Where Were You In The Morning' that have less groove overall and a bit more watery melody, but then we get a very stiff, thin bit of percussion that seems to be more dominant in the mix. And then you get the tunes like 'Fallin' All In You' and 'Because I Had You' which build their foundation in such brittle, liquid guitar grooves that have so little color they just bleed into the background - hell, at least 'Mutual' lets its sharper groove kick into the noisier percussion and deeper mix that doesn't drown itself in reverb like 'Why' or the dreariness of 'Perfectly Wrong' and 'When You're Ready'. And it's hard to escape the feeling that many of these pickups almost feel uncomfortably intimate, perhaps not a great idea when Mendes can struggle show more personality beyond the brittle acoustics and rarely amps up the tempos or energy - hell, for as conversational as 'Like To Be You' feels between Mendes and Julia Michaels, the much more defined presence is John Mayer, who produced and played lead guitar on the song - I might not like the flat muffled tone overall, but Mayer has enough control of the atmosphere to make it his own, even behind the boards!

And that's the frustrating thing about this self-titled release - there are fragments of a Shawn Mendes who is more mature and interesting and fun, who can lean into the grooves and make solid acoustic pop music, but while this is an improvement over Illuminate, it feels sadly hollow. There's little to the performances I find gripping, the writing can feel really thin, and the production has no real flair or warmth to cultivate the intimacy it seems determined to try and emphasize. And as such... it just leaves me cold overall, so I'm giving it a solid 5/10 and only recommended for the fans - and really, the comment section is yours, go nuts down there. Beyond that... eh, indifference is better than actively disliking it, I guess, so if it's your thing, might as well enjoy it.

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