Shawn Mendes’ ‘Handwritten’: Album Review

Christina Lee | April 14, 2015 5:30 am
Shawn's Very, Very Sad "Sad Song": Watch
BBC Radio 1's Nick Grimshaw joins him in to sing about dirty socks with holes in them.

“People will only treat me like a big deal if I act like one,” Shawn Mendes says in his official bio — even though he already is a big deal. In 2014, he became the youngest artist to ever chart on the Billboard Hot 100, at age 15. Next, he opened for Taylor Swift on her 1989 tour – and all because in 2013, he posted an acoustic cover of a Justin Bieber song that got tens of thousands of likes. (This was on Vine, so it was six seconds long.) Once he started selling music, though, his A&R manager said not to mistake him for the next Austin Mahone, much less Bieber. Shawn followed suit, saying that he’d rather be the next Ed Sheeran. “His whole style isn’t fake at all,” he noted.

By “fake,” he apparently means “highly produced”: Background dancers, pyrotechnics and even a Nicki Minaj verse. And unfortunately, Shawn makes that same mistake throughout his debut album Handwritten (out today, ). He’s written more ballads than upbeat songs, and features instruments instead of electronica, as if that’s enough to show that he’s being “real.” As hard as he tries, though, this album doesn’t have the same warm intimacy of those Vines from his bedroom and bathroom in Pickering, Ontario. Handwritten has its tiny moments of spark, but it also gets dull because of how self-serious he is.

Handwritten‘s best moments remind me of when Chris Carrabba fronted the emo outfit Dashboard Confessional. The point of seeing him live, as Taylor herself just showed, was to sing along to his nakedly honest lyrics as loudly as possible. Some of Shawn’s album shows how he can potentially do the same: “Life of the Party,” the slow dance anthem that’s just sweet enough (“We don’t have to be ordinary / Make your best mistakes”); “Stitches,” the folky stomper with borderline cheesy lyrics about being an open wound, though also where his natural charm shines brightest; and the cheery “I Don’t Know Your Name,” where he raises his voice loud enough to make us believe that he was this close to finally meeting The One.

Those songs give away Shawn’s age, now 16. That’s fine, because they certainly feel truer than the ones trying to show how he’s wise beyond his years. He over-relies on his fluttering tenor in the mopey ballads “Never Be Alone” and “Crazy,” as if he figures that that alone is enough to convey sadness. (A few bluesy electric guitar notes, used in the latter as if inspired by John Mayer, are far more effective.) There’s this strange disconnect in “Aftertaste” between its Drake-level vindictive verses (“I’m the smell on your sheets, you will regret it / when you left me there”) and the hook’s romantic, swelling strings threatening to drown him out. During Handwritten‘s more serious moments, Shawn seems overly careful and polite when he sings of being an emotional mess, as if he’s afraid to overstep any boundaries.

Handwritten begs for Shawn to be seen as a singer-songwriter and not (gasp!) a pop star. He wants to be regarded as a “serious” artist, so like Ed (regardless of his rapping and recent work with Pharrell), he treats his acoustic guitar like some badge of honor. Like many pop albums, though, Handwritten is front-loaded. And like way too many Idol contestants, Shawn concerns himself more with hitting impressive notes than actually connecting to the lyrics he wrote about love and heartbreak. A good litmus test for teen artists is to see if they’re as convincing as Britney Spears is in “… Baby One More Time” – and too often, he isn’t.

Last week Handwritten was already predicted to hit No. 1, which likely means Shawn is here to stay. I bet, though, that if he hadn’t already invited fans into his world, he’d have to try harder with his music to captivate them.

Idolator Rating: 2.5/5

— Christina Lee