The Week In Pop

Comparing Shawn Mendes And James Bay, Guitar-Slinging Gods Of Young Adult Contempo

Shawn Mendes will finally exit his teen years this August, but you can’t take his youth away. So sang the suburban Toronto native Sunday at the Billboard Music Awards, alongside Khalid — another young pop star born in ’98 — and survivors from the Parkland shooting. The song, “Youth,” from Mendes’ self-titled album out tomorrow, is a resolution to persevere hopefully in the face of constant shootings, bombings, automobile attacks, and the like: “Pain, but I won’t let it turn into hate.” It’s clearly intended to be an anthem for kids growing up under the threat of mass violence, and having the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student choir onstage underlined Mendes and Khalid’s authority as generational spokesmen: These guys are not so far removed from high school themselves. They’ve lived that dread.

It’s easy to forget Mendes was discovered on the late, great, teenager-beloved video platform Vine and that he’s still a teenager three albums into his major-label career. He’s been fully absorbed into the music industry for half a decade, and his music has never been distinctly youthful, at least not in a way that might perplex Mom and Dad. If anything, Mendes makes the kind of pop some parents might enjoy more than their children do, versatile but straitlaced soft rock that often veers into adult contemporary territory. Or as his friend and collaborator John Mayer recently put it, “Shawn’s just a better version of me in a lot of ways. Shawn’s like John Mayer 2.0 without the weird software viruses.”

Mayer is not just backhandedly complimenting himself. Mendes has been open about taking inspiration from Mayer. He even called Mayer’s Continuum a playbook of sorts for his own 2016 release Illuminate, the project that cemented his status among pop’s elite class with the top-15 singles “Treat You Better,” “Mercy,” and “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back.” The influence is clear, not least of all in Mendes’ propensity for post-Clapton guitar work a Sam Ash employee might describe as “tasty,” but Mendes lacks the volatile personality that often punches up through his idol’s easy listening jams. And anyhow, Mayer’s imprint is not so pronounced on Mendes’ biggest hits, which hew closer to the prevailing pop sounds of today, erring on the side of organic rock instrumentation but existing in a genre-defiant nether region. In that way Mendes more closely resembles his other mentor figure, Ed Sheeran, though the young Canadian has yet to plunge headfirst into hip-hop the way Sheeran sometimes does. He’s way too buttoned-down for that.

Both of those totems loom large over Shawn Mendes, on which he presents another deceptively diverse palette of sounds without ever sounding close to experimental. He released five singles in advance, and even the variation within those tracks doesn’t fully capture the album’s range. Opener “In My Blood,” the biggest hit from this release so far, is a straight-ahead post-U2 power ballad with a howling, overdriven chorus; it’s a bit basic, but it admirably addresses Mendes’ anxiety and features one of his most engaging vocal performances. “Lost In Japan,” a jazzy, funky, lounge-y invitation to an overseas romantic rendezvous, is some of his most obvious Mayer worship. He conjures another whitebread icon, Justin Timberlake, on both the gentrified Prince homage “Nervous” and the easygoing soul ballad “Where Were You In The Morning.” And then there’s “Youth,” a maudlin acoustic R&B production that represents Mendes’ first overtly woke gesture.

Like most of his music, the song’s extreme professionalism is its blessing and its curse. Mendes is as eager to please musically as he is in person — a new Vulture profile reveals he recently obliged more than 600 photo-seekers outside a London hotel — but the clean-cut safeness usually lowers his ceiling to pleasantly lukewarm. There are times, as on last album’s propulsive “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” when the songwriting is contagious enough to puncture the protective bubble that makes his records so difficult to engage with on a personal level. More often, he is the sort of technician who’s easy to appreciate but hard to love. The careful conservatism almost makes me miss Sheeran’s shameless sonic cheesing.

Which is not to say I wish he would sound more like the ginger superstar. Mendes’ latest is least appealing when he most explicitly slides into Sheeran’s lane. “Fallin’ All In You,” which Sheeran actually cowrote, basically subsumes whatever personality Mendes usually projects into Sheeran’s own aesthetic. In both sound and sentiment, the barebones guitar ballad “Because I Had You” too closely resembles “Love Yourself,” the spiteful #1 hit Sheeran gifted to Justin Bieber. Closing track “When You’re Ready” skirts the edge of the Sheeran zone, too, but even less memorably. His dalliances with Mayer’s sound suit him better. “Lost In Japan,” with handclaps and popping bass and jazzy piano chords and seductive, percussive vocal stabs, is one of the best and most human songs of Mendes’ young career. “Like To Be You,” a quiet duet with Julia Michaels produced by Mayer himself, is definitely vanilla, but it’s an appealing vanilla at least.

The album peaks in the middle with a pair of very different tracks. On “Why,” Mendes finds his soft-rock sweet spot. Falsetto laments about dysfunctional romance — “Why do we put each other through hell? Why can’t we just get over ourselves?” — drift sadly through slow-burn balladry that puts Sam Smith’s latest album to shame. In that way it’s a close cousin to Zayn’s excellent “It’s You.” Just before “Why” comes “Particular Taste,” an even more overt Prince tribute than “Nervous,” this one penned by hit-making producer and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder. It’s undeniably corny, but its cartoonish qualities work in its favor, even lyrics like these: “She don’t listen to a thing ‘less it feels right/ Only dances when its Kanye/ She can take you one on one if she feels like/ You’ll be begging her for mercy.” For once, it sounds like Mendes is having fun in the wild rather than waving from the other side of a glass panel.

If you really want to hear a pop-rocker let his hair down, though, I recommend the album English singer-songwriter James Bay released last week, Electric Light. Bay, who won a large audience and several Grammy nominations with 2015 debut Chaos And The Calm, is by nature a more electric performer than Mendes. On that album he specialized in guitar-powered classic rock crossbred with distinctly British balladry, like if James Blunt started a Fleetwood Mac tribute band. It was significantly better than that description implies thanks to Bay’s vigorous microphone presence and solid songwriting chops, but nothing about it suggested he had an album like Electric Light in him.

From the beginning, it’s clear we’re getting a more colorful and enthralling batch of songs this time around. After a static-laden introduction that suggests a loose narrative about a self-destructive romance in peril, “Wasted On Each Other” comes crashing in with gnarly, ominous power chords, a controlled drum-kit pound, and enough negative space in the mix to remind me of Spoon. It’s a genuinely thrilling piece of work, one that converted me into a James Bay fan on impact.

Next up is “Pink Lemonade,” a lockstep guitar-pop track that exists in continuum with the Strokes and Phoenix’s Strokes-inspired It’s Never Been Like That. The soulful “Wild Love” successfully indulges Bon Iver-style electro-organic impulses. Further gospel euphoria lifts the neon, shapeshifting “In My Head,” a song that imagines where Fun. might have gone had they ever followed up Some Nights. On side A, only “Us” scans as overly saccharine, invoking bad memories of Hozier and Gavin DeGraw.

After another narrative interlude arrives to bisect the album, “Just For Tonight” applies distinctly modern production to a serviceable Mellencamp impression; surprisingly, it works. “Wanderlust” brings Dire Straits into conversation with iPod commercial rock; somehow, that works too. Bay again lays a foundation of glowing anti-matter beneath hearty guitar-powered pop on “Sugar Drunk High” and ends up with yet another winner. Near the end, “Stand Up” follows those Justin Vernon breadcrumbs all the way back to Imogen Heap, while “Fade Out” steers Tame Impala’s synthetic psych into the realm of sultry throwback funk and R&B. Only when Bay plays it straight, as on the album-ending “Slide,” does his music recede into background noise.

One obvious parallel to Electric Light is the 1975’s ambitious, ridiculous I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. That album filtered ’80s pop and soft rock into a delirious modern splatter, switching aesthetics from song to song without ever losing its pretentious, adventurous through line. Bay’s album is what might happen if the 1975 pillaged a bunch of old The O.C. and Gossip Girl soundtracks for spare parts along with all the ’80s dollar bin records.

Electric Light is less messy and more taut than I like it when you sleep, but Bay and the 1975 share a willingness to try anything in pursuit of a good pop song as well as a surprisingly consistent return on their risks. Both acts prove you can be relentlessly commercial and intrepid all at once. Bay’s album is a success on its own terms, but its release so close to Shawn Mendes has me dreaming of what might have been. I wonder what an obvious talent like Mendes might come up with if he traded his failure-proof approach for a jolt of fearlessness.

CHART WATCH

Two weeks ago, Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys became the #1 album in America with record streaming numbers and the biggest debut of the year. Last week, while I was away on vacation, Beerbongs & Bentleys stayed #1 for a second week. Now that I’m back to work, Post is still holding it down at #1 with a very healthy 147,000 equivalent album units. Of those, 122,000 are derived from streaming, whereas only 18,000 constitute traditional album sales, Billboard reports.

At #2 with 139,000 units is Pink’s Beautiful Trauma, zooming back up from #83 thanks to a promotion bundling album sales with concert tickets. Traditional sales account for 135,000 of those units — though “traditional” might not be the best descriptor for sales accrued via album/ticket bundles. Debuting at #3 with 61,000 units but only 5,000 in sales is Playboi Carti’s Die Lit, his highest-charting release so far. Charlie Puth is up next at #4 with 58,000 units/39,000 sales for Voicenotes, surpassing the #6 peak but not the 65,000-unit debut of his prior release Nine Track Mind.

After former #1 LPs from The Greatest Showman, J. Cole, and Cardi B comes Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, debuting at #8 with 47,000 units/37,000 sales. (It’s notably #1 in their native UK, where it had the best vinyl sales week of the last 25 years.) After the Black Panther soundtrack at #9 comes Tee Grizzley, closing out the top 10 with the debut of Activated on the strength of 33,000 units, 26,000 of them via streaming.

Four more albums had top-10 debuts last week while I was out — Leon Bridges’ Good Thing, Shinedown’s ATTENTION ATTENTION, Rae Sremmurd’s SR3MM, and Lake Street Dive’s Free Yourself Up — but none remain in the top 10 this week.

You know what else happened while I was away? Childish Gambino seized the top spot on the Hot 100 from Drake. “This Is America” became Donald Glover’s first #1 single (and first in the top 10), ending a 15-week run comprising 11 weeks for “God’s Plan” and four for “Nice For What.” This week Gambino’s viral smash remains at #1 for a second consecutive frame, with “Nice For What” and “God’s Plan” right behind it at #2 and #3.

Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho” is at #4, with Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” at #5 and Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle” at #6. Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left To Cry” is back up to #7, while BlocBoy JB and Drake’s “Look Alive” slides to #8. Camila Cabello’s “Never Be The Same,” which peaked at #6 two weeks ago, is down to #9. Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” closes out the top 10 at #10.

POP FIVE

Christina Aguilera, “Twice” & “Fall In Line” (Feat. Demi Lovato)
I didn’t expect Xtina to return with that Kanye-produced wildness, and I really didn’t expect to be picking up “Bohemian Rhapsody” vibes from her next single. Not that “Twice” goes full Galileo Figaro — it’s much more staid and traditionalist than that — but the emotional and melodic undercurrents are there. “Fall In Line,” the duet with Aguilera’s descendent Demi Lovato, boasts the killer line, “All the youth in the world won’t save you from growing older,” and thumping, noirish production that verges on trip-hop. I like that one, too. Is this Christina Aguilera comeback album gonna be… dope?

Clean Bandit – “Solo” (Feat. Demi Lovato)
More Demi! “Solo” is a lot more in line with current trends than her Xtina collab, with an island bounce and a computerized vocal hook. For a while there you wouldn’t even know it’s a Clean Bandit production, but when those strings do come sweeping in, man do they do their job. This is my favorite Clean Bandit song since “Rather Be.”

Jennifer Lopez – “Dinero” (Feat. DJ Khaled & Cardi B)
Similarly, I haven’t heard a J-Lo single this fun since the ’90s. The beat is pure hyperactive energy, and rarely will you find a hook so catchy and painfully honest as “Yo quiero yo quiero dinero.” Side note: Between this and “I Like It,” Cardi B is building herself a nice catalog of Latin club crushers.

Pharrell x Camila Cabello – “Sangria Wine”
And as long as we’re vibing on bass-booming Latin pop songs, here’s the team that brought you “Havana” with another salsa-inflected single that mainly makes me miss “Havana.” I can already tell that chorus is going to be lodged in my cranium all summer, though.

Zayn – “Entertainer”
Just when I was ready to dismiss him completely, Zayn Malik comes through with his first decent single in forever, a lithe and airy mid-tempo jam that translates his recent adult contemporary R&B schmaltz into a more subtly stylish context.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Ariana Grande is dating comedian Pete Davidson(!). [E!]
  • Meanwhile, Grande’s ex Mac Miller blew twice the legal limit when he was arrested after fleeing a car crash last week. [TMZ]
  • More Grande: In an interview with Time she said Manchester Arena attack showed “the worst of humanity” and that “the processing part is going to take forever.” [BBC]
  • The Weeknd and his ex Bella Hadid were caught kissing at Cannes. [People]
  • Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz and his wife had a baby girl they named Marvel. [USA Today]
  • Liam Payne covered Zedd’s “The Middle” in the BBC Live Lounge. [YouTube]
  • Rae Sremmurd and Wiz Khalifa announced a co-headlining tour. [PR Newswire]
  • Cardi B and Offset have been sued by a man who says they had him assaulted when he sought an autograph outside a Met Gala after-party. [The Wrap]
  • Offset was also hospitalized for minor injuries sustained in a car crash. [People]
  • Taylor Swift welcomed Shawn Mendes, Selena Gomez, and Troye Sivan to the stage at her Pasadena shows. [Paper]
  • Camila Cabello sat out her opening slot at Swift’s Seattle concert due to dehydration. [Twitter]
  • Still more Swift: Her cats make a cameo in Deadpool 2. [Imgur]
  • OK, one more Swift-tangiential bullet point: James Bay covered “Delicate” in the BBC Live Lounge. [YouTube]
  • Beyoncé bought an old church in New Orleans. [TMZ]
  • Avril Lavigne is dating billionaire Phillip Sarofim. [ET]
  • Fifth Harmony released a final video for “Don’t Say You Love Me” before they go on hiatus. [YouTube]
  • A posthumous Avicii album will reportedly be released this year. [Music Feeds]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME