By Hayden Wright
If YouTube gave us Justin Bieber, then Vine can take credit for Shawn Mendes: In 2013, the then-15-year-old Ontario native built a following with six-second snippets of popular songs. Three years later, and just a month past his 18th, birthday, Mendes’ second studio album lands him somewhere beyond teen pop, full of sturdy sentiment and simple guitar melodies. These tracks will be easy to take on the road and could hold up in an arena as well as around a campfire, bearing the unpretentious markings Mendes fans already know and expect.
All in all, Illuminate is full of songs that are elegant without seeming too polished, wrought without feeling overwrought, carefully crafted without taking the teen star out of his musical depth. Mendes doesn’t fall into the dance-pop trappings of contemporary radio, but rather trusts his attributes: charm, a guitar, and his pure vocal ability. These are the best tracks on his new album, Illuminate:
“Three Empty Words.” One of Illuminate‘s quietest moments makes the greatest impact: Remember Bieber’s “Love Yourself?” “Three Empty Words” channels the same emotional candor about a failing relationship, minus Justin’s passive-aggressive digs: “I won’t keep on saying those three empty words.” The barely-there guitar arrangement unravels a love story that’s maybe not quite “love,” after all.
“Treat You Better” was selected as the album’s lead single for a very good reason — it’s great. Where other tracks on Illuminate showcase Mendes’ creative range and lyrical maturity, “Treat You Better” has the special distinction of being a near-perfect pop song.
“No Promises.” Just like “Treat You Better,” Mendes’ “No Promises” was conceived, recorded, and mixed as a no-holds-barred A-side. An atmospheric vocal hook drives Illuminate as far into dance territory as it ever goes, giving listeners a taste of what could happen if Mendes teamed up with Diplo or Calvin Harris in the future.
“Bad Reputation” is the tale about a misunderstood girl we’ve all heard before — she takes the long way home, “they” don’t know what she’s been through. Mendes, the romantic lead, sees something in this young lady no one else sees, setting young and complicated hearts aflutter. Though formulaic, Mendes’ aching vocals put a new twist on this classic premise.
“Don’t Be a Fool.” On this torchy number, Mendes tries his hand at doo-wop and soul and succeeds —proving that he’s both literate in his musical influences and not afraid of a throwback. The syncopated strings are not unlike elements of Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain,” a Motown-inspired jam itself, and Mendes’ delivery has whispers of Marvin Gaye.