Shawn Mendes grows up and makes a splash with new album “Wonder”
His latest release solidifies a more mature sound and tackles themes related to love, adulthood and fame in the year 2020
Shawn Mendes is growing up. The 22-year-old singer-songwriter is coming into his own, honing his sound, and finally turning into the superstar pop singer he’s been trying to be for years.
On his 2018 self-titled LP (his third), he finally evolved past his blandly sweet-yet-forgettable coffee shop singer-songwriter sound for something more cohesive, current and mature. Prior to Shawn Mendes, his most successful singles were often his most obviously pop-leaning productions infused with a healthy dose of rock sensibility thanks to frequent collaborator Teddy Geiger. Shawn Mendes saw him leaning more fully into that sound, and it worked, especially on tracks like “In My Blood” and “Nervous” that dealt with Mendes’ anxiety and self-doubt as he grew into himself.
On “Wonder,” Mendes has, unfortunately, dropped Geiger — but he continues to build on the sound that he established two years ago, to great effect. Gone are the treacly guitar strings and forgettable, surface-level lyrics, replaced with a bolder, richer and more orchestral sound.
“Wonder” still features its fair share of love songs because that’s what Mendes does best, and because his life since 2018 has been a whirlwind of a love affair with Camila Cabello. The end result is mostly more positive and upbeat, with fewer songs about missed connections or loves lost, and more songs about learning how to grow up and love someone in a more mature way. Then there was this little thing called COVID-19, and all of a sudden Mendes and Cabello found themselves stuck inside their house with each other for a while. There is a healthy dose of obsessive and lovestruck infatuation, clearly inspired by his love for Cabello, on tracks like “Always Been You” and “Piece of You.” We’ve all been there, and the unique state of the COVID world was bound to give us these moments since it gave these young lovers a chance to dive head-first into their love for each other over the course of the last 12 months. Luckily these tracks are not suffocatingly sweet; “Piece of You” gives Mendes a chance to do his best Nick Jonas impression with lyrics about jealousy and obsession that evoke Jonas’ mega-hit “Jealous,” as he writes about loving someone who’s often in the spotlight as the target of others’ affection.
But in the midst of all the young love, there’s also a depth and a shade of darkness running underneath it all. It’s a bit unexpected from Mendes, who generally projects a clean, upbeat and well-adjusted image to the outside world. Yes, he’s madly in love and he’s growing up— but he’s doing it all while dealing with the complications that two famous people and their busy lives present. Album standout “Dream,” which builds an atmospheric swell of sound to dramatic effect, features Mendes wishing he could be with his lover instead of sleeping thousands of miles apart. While it’s something we can all relate to if we’ve been separated from a loved one, it also speaks directly to the darker side of fame; even though Mendes and Cabello are stuck at home right now, that’s not always the case, and when they’re in the swing of their busy lives as pop stars, they often find themselves far, far apart. That can’t be easy for any young lovers, and then you add the growing pains of celebrity on top of it all, and you’ve got the perfect material for a lovesick pop star. The downsides of fame end up becoming a theme that’s threaded throughout the whole album. Halfway through, on “Call My Friends,” Mendes once again blends a feeling we can all identify with — missing our friends and wanting a vacation from our own suffocating lives while we’re stuck at home — with the unique pains that fame inflicts on someone who finds himself living a much different life than everyone he grew up with. His friends are the people who know him best, yet he feels like he’s missing out on their lives.
This theme of the trappings of young fame continues on “Monster,” his collaboration with Justin Bieber. Say what you want about Bieber or this duet; divisive as they may be, it’s refreshing to see two young and very famous people publicly and honestly grappling with their experiences with fame. It’s easy to judge from the outside, but it’s also hard to argue that making someone famous at a young age is a great idea. “Monster” is almost shocking in its earnestness and vulnerability, as well as its unexpected pairing of squeaky-clean good boy Mendes and recovering troubled star Bieber. While Bieber sings about the mistakes he’s made because of a chip on his shoulder, and Mendes laments the way in which fame strokes his ego and then tears him down in the same breath, the pair both take a refreshingly honest look at their own experiences and public images.
The artwork for “Wonder,” then, becomes an apt metaphor for Mendes’ life at this juncture. Depending on your outlook, he’s either swimming or drowning in the water, all while the rain pours down on him — and still he presents a smiling face for all of us to see. He’s doing just fine, thank you very much, even in the face of everything the world throws his way; love, beauty, fame, pain and, yes, wonder.