Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Illuminate | Shawn Mendes

On the cover of his sophomore effort, teenage singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes has a good grip on the one instrument he couldn't survive as a recording artist without. He used it as a crutch throughout his debut album – Handwritten, his shaky lift-off from seven-second star to a regular teen idol – and it seems he isn't giving it up any time soon. Really, nothing in Mendes' formula has changed: teen charm and a guitar is all it takes. Well, all it took to score him a number one debut album here in the States. And he realized that if it isn't broken, don't fix it.

For those of you who were in the same boat as I was with Handwritten – generally unimpressed – that isn't the greatest news. But have no fear: he does manage to improve upon his model, even if ever so slightly.

"Treat You Better" came to us just as the very last sign of "Stitches," the best of his output last year, had been wiped from radio airwaves. He was fresh out of our minds and all was forgiven (or forgotten) regarding the sorely lackluster debut album, so the lead single from this set was not unwelcome; guitar plucks carry the song along as Mendes croons a smooth melody line until a chorus kicks some energy into things. And in context to the rest of the album, it sits at the end of the opening trio of quite impressive tracks. In line with it, opening track "Ruin" sticks the landing with swaying 6/8 time, and he gives one of his most convincing vocal performances to date on "Mercy."

Now, saying "his most convincing" is not all that grand of an accomplishment. After all, Mendes' voice isn't the most stunning out there. At the end of the day, it's an adequate voice that, without Vine, wouldn't have gotten him further than local tavern circuit fame in his hometown if he had launched his career in traditional form. But if he and Ed Sheeran prove anything, it's that sometimes, the young johnny one-notes with some good looks and a guitar can make it big if they play their cards right, and considering the debut chart position of both of his albums, I suppose Shawn Mendes is a fine poker player.

A fine poker player, sure, but not a striking one. As an acoustic songwriter marketing himself in a Top 40 market, Mendes tries to find a balance but often stalls in the middle of the road. He exhausts his strongest songwriting at the front end of this album, leaving the remainder of it to sputter: guitar chord, musky lower register, guitar chord, second-rate storytelling about love and hook-ups, guitar chord, pinched higher register, repeat. (The hook-up talk, by the way, is new to his craft.) The songwriting here, while not particularly terrible, doesn't lend itself to variation, melting most of these tracks into a solid block of wax that shines with slick, boyish charm. And that works for now, but without some evolution soon, he'll age into John Mayer's shoes before he knows it.

Illuminate is available now under Island Records.

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