Shawn Mendes’ ‘Illuminate’: Album Review
Really, Shawn Mendes is a descendant of the guy-with-a-guitar wave that began with John Mayer and extended well into the 2000s with the likes of Ryan Cabrera, some interchangeable American Idol winners and Teddy Geiger – the latter of whom would go on to lend his pen to both of Shawn’s albums. Once Ed Sheeran rolled in with his massive debut album, +, in 2011, it felt as though sensitive strummers would forever be making us swoon.
On his sophomore effort Illuminate (out September 23), Shawn Mendes delves even deeper into the sounds of last year’s Handwritten by carrying over the songwriting team, tightening up the production and hiring Sheeran’s producer, Jake Gosling. It’s as if the former Vine star wanted to do Handwritten 2.0. But while his own debut set the foundation, the other key influence is Mayer. Songs like “Lights On,” “Like This,” “No Promises,” and “Ruin” bring to mind the signature guitar licks from the Grammy winner’s critically acclaimed Continuum, which just this month turned 10. Still, Shawn plays with them and gives them some punch, as on the plucky intro of “No Promises” that leads into a percussion-heavy hook that reverberates with some of Shawn’s past singles.
The 17-year-old’s most noticeable change, aside from the tight music hall sonics, is the subtle infusion of sex into the lyrics. He’s graduated from songs like “Kid In Love” to fare like “Lights On” and “Patience.” Both ballads paint clear pictures of behind-closed-doors moments, and the sexual nature of the lyrics doesn’t qualify as innuendo by any means. On “Lights On” he wants a clear view of what he’s working with, and on “Patience,” someone’s being a tease.
“Bad Reputation” further displays his lyrical development. It’s a ballad about a girl that’s had a spate of poor decisions and imminent bullying: “All of my friends seen her naked / Or so the story goes / Mistakes we all make them / But they won’t let it go / She’s got a bad reputation…” It’s a reminder that Shawn can still pull off the schmaltz because there’s a clear understanding about who’s listening. Combined with his voice, these two factors make for a pleasant listen, so that when he paints himself as a knight in shining armor with his love and guitar, he’s golden. Case in point: “Treat You Better” and its ascent to the Top 10.
On closing track “Understand,” Mendes muses over not wanting to lose himself. It’s fitting because on Illuminate, by polishing a proven formula, it’s clear he hasn’t.
— Jon Reyes