Imagine you are a precocious teenage dreamboat from Toronto who got famous covering Justin Bieber and other pop stars on Vine — so famous that you signed to the same label as Bieber, and when a radio DJ asks Bieber about you during an on-air interview, Bieber replies, “Who’s Shawn Mendes?” How do you feel about your fellow Canadian pop idol, whose shadow was already hanging over your career due to his shared background and similar YouTube-to-superstardom storyline, darkening that shadow with some off-the-cuff shade? What will you do in response? Dare you attempt to beat the reigning prince of pop at his own game?
If you’re Mendes, that is not what you attempt. Apparently, you ask the same question as Bieber: Who is Shawn Mendes, exactly? “Understand,” the last track on the 18-year-old singer-songwriter’s new album, ends with a pep talk by Mendes leading up to this chorus: “And every time I ask myself / Am I turning into someone else? / And I just pray to God that I’m still who I am / I really wanna understand.” The song is about coming to grips with change, Mendes assuring himself and his listeners that you can be a dynamic human being without losing hold of the person you’ve always been. It’s an adolescent concern, sure, yet like all the music Mendes is making these days, it’s more universal than some of us would like to admit.
Illuminate, out tomorrow on Island, finds Mendes growing up fast. But whereas many of his peers are finishing high school and heading off to college, he’s solidifying his place as a significant player in mainstream pop. Mendes recently told The New York Times he’s spent the past few years experiencing a typical teenage tumble of impulses: “From 15 to 18, everybody is a different person. Every six months, I have a whole new outlook on life.” Although that rapid personal evolution colors some of his lyrics, Illuminate does not sound like the work of a kid lunging every which direction in search of an identity. It’s an assured collection of songs from a musician who seems to know exactly what he’s doing.
It also sounds very little like Bieber, with the exception of Bieber’s chart-topping acoustic kiss-off “Love Yourself.” That’s no coincidence: “Love Yourself” was co-written by Ed Sheeran, who Mendes openly cites as a mentor and creative inspiration. Sheeran’s whitebread folk-pop is all over Illuminate; he’s almost as unmissable an influence as John Mayer, whose blue-eyed soul exercise Continuum functioned as a sort of playbook for Mendes this time around. Mayer even played some guitar on the album, lending his expertise in bluesy adult contemporary sheen. Advance singles “Treat You Better,” with its subtle island bounce, and “Mercy,” a OneRepublic-style rock ballad with shades of James Blake, are outliers. Whereas the Biebs has almost entirely submerged his sound in forward-thinking electronic production, Mendes is settling into a soft classic-rock groove likely to win over suburban parents who chaperone trips to his concerts.
Depending on your appetite for milquetoast, that may not represent an improvement from the cheesy six-second covers Mendes made his name on or the slick pop-rock of last year’s rush-job debut Handwritten. (Maybe you found yourself singing along with its breakthrough single “Stitches” and felt a deep pang of self-loathing? Or was that just me?) But even if Illuminate strikes you as essentially bland, the quality of its craftsmanship marks a big leap forward for Mendes. He co-wrote everything on the album, and it shows; there’s a consistent vision and an obvious affection for the musical heroes who informed it.
The impact of Sheeran and Mayer extends all the way down to their way of making themselves the hero in their songs. Illuminate depicts Mendes as the caring alternative for an abused woman (“Treat You Better”), a burgeoning loverman who’ll patiently wait until you’re ready (“Lights On”), a scorned boyfriend who just wants you to treat him right (“Mercy”), and a motivational speaker (the aforementioned “Understand”) among other Good Guy roles. Even the breakup song “Three Empty Words” is about how Mendes is too kind and genuine to lie about loving his partner. His performances are uniformly saccharine, yet backed by such strong songwriting, Mendes is more charming than I want to give him credit for. Somehow this squeaky-clean teacher’s pet type creates a degree of distance between himself and an obnoxious classicist cornball like Charlie Puth.
What may also seem surprising about Illuminate is that it steers away from dancehall-pop and electro-pop and the rest of today’s trendy radio sounds toward something more traditionalist. But considering the longstanding success of Sheeran, Sam Smith, and Adele, even the embrace of a grownup sound isn’t exactly a risky move. The nature of conservatism, after all, is to avoid risk at all cost, and the polarized state of American politics should tell you that for every pop listener in search of the cutting edge, there’s another fan out there seeking comfortable old archetypes. Ultimately, that’s who Shawn Mendes is: A decent enough guy who’s a lot like others before him. Some will like him, some won’t, but pretty soon nobody will be wondering who he is.
Country star Jason Aldean scores his third straight #1 album this week with They Don’t Know, which debuts on top with 138,000 equivalent units and 131,000 in traditional sales. Billboard notes that Aldean’s previous albums sold significantly more — 278,000 copies for 2014’s Old Boots, New Dirt and 409,000 for 2012’s Night Train — but in the 2016 album sales economy, anything above 100K scans as a success.
They Don’t Know is the first country album to top the chart since Chris Stapleton’s Traveller ended its reign late last year and the first to start out on top since Luke Bryan’s Kill The Lights in August 2015 — surprising stats given country fans strike me as some of the most consistent album-buying forces in music. This is also the first year since 2001 that we’ve waited until October for a #1 country album. (Due to Billboard’s weird system, this week’s chart is dated for 10/1.)
After Drake’s Views and the Suicide Squad soundtrack, still going strong at #2 and #3, respectively, comes Bastille’s #4-debuting Wild World with 43,000 units and 35,000 in sales. The Head And The Heart follow at #5 with 40,000 units and 37,000 sales for Signs Of Light, their best chart position ever by five spots. The Beatles notch their 32nd top-10 album with Live At The Hollywood Bowl accruing 36,000 units and 35,000 sales for a #7 debut. And Jack White’s Acoustic Recordings: 1998-2016 begins at #8 with 32,000 units and 30,000 sales, including 12,000 on vinyl.
Once again, there’s not much movement on the Hot 100. For the first time since June, the top 5 remains the same as last week, topped off by the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” for a fifth straight week. The most significant move is DJ Snake and Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You,” which shoots up to #6 from #12. Billboard notes that it’s Bieber’s 11th top-10 hit and fifth this year, surpassing Drake for the most top-10 hits this year. And although we usually focus on the top 10 in this column, you’d probably like to know that Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion” debuts at #15; its newly premiered video will likely help boost it to the top 10 next week.
One more development that’s not reflected on the Hot 100, at least not yet: “Gold,” a PC Music-meets-R&B single by Illinois singer Kiiara that debuted more than a year ago, has suddenly climbed to #4 on the iTunes singles chart. So if your surefire pop hit from last summer fizzled out, don’t worry, there’s still hope!
The Weeknd – “Starboy” (Feat. Daft Punk)
When the Weeknd shared that cover art yesterday, I was shocked at just how feverishly I’m anticipating this album. And although it’s not as immediately gripping as “Can’t Feel My Face,” this song does nothing to extinguish that anticipation.
Calvin Harris – “My Way”
If John Newman’s “Olé” was the “Charged Up” in Calvin Harris’ anti-Taylor Swift offensive, the far superior “My Way” is his “Back To Back.” All it needs now is some airhorn!
Fifth Harmony – “That’s My Girl”
Fantastic track, but maybe not such a great concept for a video.
Pentatonix & Dolly Parton – “Jolene”
Theoretically this is harmless, but basically everything except Dolly here laughs in the face of this song’s deep emotional turmoil. I was going to single out that skibbity-bop-bam-doo rhythm section, but really everything Pentatonix bring to the table here is weirdly bathed in posi vibes. Pentatonix know “Jolene” is supposed to be a sad song, right?
Wiz Khalifa – “Stranger Things” (Feat. J.R. Donato)
The Stranger Things theme deserves a better rap song than this.