Review: Shawn Mendes’ self-titled album is about more than just a kid in love

Mendes draws on flower motifs in the packaging for his newest album, preparing the listener for his emotional vulnerability from first glance.

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★★★★☆

Shawn Mendes is younger than most Mizzou students, as is much of his fanbase. Although, you’d never guess it from his newest work. The 19-year-old singer-songwriter sensation may have started on Vine, but his self-titled album, released last Friday on Island Records, continues to legitimize his raw talent and artistry.

The album opens with the deceptively accessible “In My Blood.” The radio hit details Mendes’ first experience with panic attacks, a side of himself previously unshared with his audience. There’s a reason he calls it “the closest song to my heart that I’ve ever written.” It’s catchy, meaningful, raw and probably the only song you may have heard before listening to the album.

But after establishing his mindset, with “In My Blood" acting as a sort of thesis statement for himself, Mendes spends the rest of the record struggling with a passionate yet uncommunicative romance. The album’s exploration of various types of love makes it feel more intense and intimate than his past hits. He shows off his adept vocal range throughout the album, with hooks from songs like “Fallin’ All in You” and “Perfectly Wrong” sung entirely in a rich falsetto. His varied musical styles also flow into each other with grace, transitioning easily from upbeat, R&B-influenced tracks like “Nervous” to heavier, more moving looks at the darker parts of a relationship.

Mendes plays with genre expectations left and right through these transitions. The opening to “Lost In Japan,” a song about the impulsivity of young love, plays like it’s straight off a Lo-Fi Chill Beats to Study and Relax To stream before launching into a well-mixed, atmospheric bop. Similarly, “Why,” the signal of the album’s narrative shift from love to loss, opens with subtle record pops evocative of any of a hundred movie scenes of a couple dancing closely to a wistful song. Mendes and his collaborators know how to create a mood, and they take advantage of that skill throughout the album.

Mendes’ collaborators actually show themselves more clearly than expected for a self-titled album. Julia Michaels, the co-writer of most of your favorite pop songs from the past five years, wrote and sings part of the conversational “Like to Be You.” Though her deftly talented fingerprints are all over the song, as well as those of the song’s producer and guitarist John Mayer, it’s still one of the weaker points of the album. It attempts to capture the specificity that songs like “Nervous” (Michael’s other contribution to the album) and “Queen” have mastered, but it gets lost in the cliche-heavy chorus and showboaty vocal riffs from both Michaels and Mendes.

Another drop in the album comes next on the tracklist. “Fallin’ All in You” is an expert ballad detailing the steadiness and safety felt in a loving relationship while hinting at some of the problems that made the incoming breakup inevitable. It’s written by Mendes and Ed Sheeran, and you can pick out line for line and practically note for note each writer’s influence; much of it is Sheeran’s. It’s not a bad song by any stretch, but it’s a bit odd for the self-titled work Mendes describes as a “stamp [of] this moment in time at 19 because I’ve never felt so true to myself.”

This focus on the importance of youth comes to fruition, funnily enough, in “Youth.” This standout track, inspired by last year’s Manchester terrorist attacks, made headlines with Mendes’ and collaborator Khalid’s moving performance with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas show choir at this year’s Billboard Music Awards. Their voices blend together flawlessly in both the live and recorded performances, and the song conveys an important message without being heavy-handed, a rare feat these days.

Beyond just the musical construction, though, is Mendes’ singular ability to tell one cohesive story throughout an album. The whole work aches and longs so acutely in both the ups and downs. He intimates facets of his undying infatuation with shocking clarity. Each song feels fresh and vital, if not innovative, in its take on the relationship. Though he strays topics with songs like “In My Blood” and “Youth,” no song feels out of place. He ties together as many loose strands as he can, even those you weren’t aware were loose.

Songs like “Mutual,” the track most reminiscent of Mendes’ past LPs, and “Particular Taste,” perhaps his most danceable song yet, also display an emphasis on unique and laser-focused production that truly defines the album. Every instrument, every line, every lyric feels purposeful but not calculated. Okay, not every lyric; “You ain’t the ruler of no country” in the chorus of “Queen” is certainly a bit much, though Mendes says it’s his favorite on the album. But his care and thoughtfulness into this record is brazenly clear. He may take the maxim of variety a step too far in some of his collaborations, but his solo songs shine through as examples of his true capability. It’s not perfect, but it’s real, just like any 19-year-old in love.

CHOICE SONGS

  • Upbeat: “Particular Taste”

  • Melancholy: “Why”

  • Sweet: “Lost In Japan”

  • Important: “In My Blood”

CHOICE LYRICS

  • Inspirational: “Pain, but I won’t let it turn into hate / No, I won’t let it change me” (“Youth”)

  • Contemplative: “And every single night my arms are not around you / My mind’s still wrapped around you” (“When You’re Ready”)

  • Anecdotal: “She’ll take your name and number, then she’ll hit erase and walk away” (“Particular Taste”)

  • Relatable: “I heard you asked about me through a friend, and my adrenaline kicked in / ‘Cause I’ve been askin’ ‘bout you too” (“Nervous”)

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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