Since Shawn Mendes emerged in 2014 as one of the first-ever “Vine stars” (it’s hard to believe how quaint a term involving defunct social-media app can sound), he’s evolved with a self-assurance that belies his youth, his indisputable cuteness and the seemingly inevitable fizz that would come with such an arrival.
He’s deftly avoided many of the pitfalls of both novelty status and teen stardom — partially because, unlike many teen stars, he didn’t arrive on the coattails of a television show or film that diluted his identity — and, thanks to a live show strong enough to sell out Madison Square Garden and well-crafted pop songs like the punctuationally inconsistent “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” and his biggest hit “Stitches,” he’s developed an impressively sturdy career and a fanatical following, albeit one mostly consisting of teenaged girls.
Now 19, the singer is preparing for the next, arguably most difficult transition, one that’s felled many before him: The move from teen star to career artist. His new album — which signals this transition by being self-titled, even though it’s his third full-length — both doubles down on the breathy acoustic pop that got him where he is and finds him branching into into several risky but generally satisfying directions. While the opening track, “In My Blood,” features a soaring rock chorus in obvious homage to Kings of Leon’s 2007 hit “Sex on Fire,” Mendes’ two role models here are others who made a similar leap: Justins Timberlake and Bieber. The former looms over tight, lite-R&B tracks like “Nervous” and “Lost in Japan” and especially Mendes’ phrasing and white-soul vocals that often flip into falsetto; the latter in the several wistful tracks here that evoke Bieber’s comeback hit, the Ed Sheeran-assisted “Love Yourself.” Yet the references are less derivative than knowing winks and signposts that signal Mendes’ intended path.
The singer and his team are savvy enough to know that his transition requires top-shelf co-signs, and the album is stuffed with them. Friend/mentor Sheeran co-wrote one song; John Mayer produced and plays an atmospheric guitar solo on another; OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder brings an oddly Robin Thicke-ish flavor to “Particular Taste,” which it opens with the unintentionally loaded line, “She don’t listen to a thing unless it feels right / Only dances when it’s Kanye.” Mendes also teams up with BFF Khalid — another fast-rising star born in 1998 — for the duet “Youth,” which the duo performed as a pro-gun control statement at the Billboard Awards the other night. The song features defiantly positive lines like “You can’t take my youth away … I won’t let it turn into hate, I won’t let it change me.” Yet the most prominent collaborator is Julia Michaels, who adds her unmistakable touch to two of the album’s key songs: “Nervous” (which evokes “Bad Liar,” her hit for Selena Gomez) and especially “Like to Be You,” a duet that marks one of her best vocal performances to date.
The album closes with “When You’re Ready,” a soft, heartstring-tugging ballad with a mellifluous, multisyllabic melody and some well-played lyrical details (“What if my dad is right when he says you’re the one?”) and a chorus that unflinchingly pledges eternal love: “Baby, anytime you’re ready, I’m waiting/ Even ten years from now, if you haven’t found somebody, I promise I’ll be around.” The song ends unexpectedly, on a lingering note that leaves the listener anticipating more — a clever songwriting flourish that makes the song resonate even more than it did already, and plays to his teen base on an album that’s also moving him away from it.
“Shawn Mendes” is a remarkably well-crafted pop album that finds the singer trying on different styles, prominently showcasing his collaborators and making some flagrant references — yet his persona has become strong enough that he’s never overpowered by any of it. The songs are short and to the point and rarely outstay their welcome, and while it probably would have been a stronger record with 12 tracks instead of 14, it’s a confident step forward that could very well usher in a new and bigger phase of a career that’s already bigger than anyone could have expected four short years ago.