Wonder Has Me Wondering If Shawn Mendes Is On The Verge Of A Creative Breakthrough

Wonder Has Me Wondering If Shawn Mendes Is On The Verge Of A Creative Breakthrough

Before we consider his new album, let’s appreciate how far Shawn Mendes has come. When the world first met Mendes in 2014, he was a 15-year-old from outside Toronto who had risen to fame on Vine, the six-second video app that predated TikTok as a virality factory. By posting six-second covers and playing the part of the affable popular kid, Mendes earned a massive grassroots following and a record deal with Island. But unlike many who attempt the leap from the wild frontier of an online video platform to the well-oiled major-label machine, he stuck the landing. Mendes is not only still around six years later, he’s established himself as one of the foremost stars in pop.

Taking bits and pieces from influences such as John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, and Justin Timberlake, Mendes has carved out his own lane in the mainstream without ever seeming like a revolutionary. At a concert last summer a day after he scored his first #1 hit — “Señorita,” a catchy but somewhat milquetoast duet with his girlfriend and fellow teen pop singer done good Camila Cabello — I was struck by my inability to pin Mendes down into a particular lineage despite all the popular and accessible forebears informing his style. He’s part pop star, part arena rocker, part folk-pop singer-songwriter, part bluesy guitar guy. At 22, he’s become the young face of adult contemporary for a new generation. And although he operates within the guardrails of radio-friendliness, he seems to be having a lot of fun veering around inside those boundaries and is piling up some pretty good songs in the process.

That’s never been truer than on Wonder, Mendes’ fourth album and his best (or at least most interesting). He calls this batch of songs his return to creativity for creativity’s sake after getting burned out on the addictive thrill of chasing hits, and you can kind of see what he means. Despite calling back to “Yellow” with a song called “Look Up At The Stars,” Wonder does have a bit of Viva La Vida to it, that artsy pivot after industry-conquering domination. But that album still yielded chart-topping hits for Chris Martin and friends, and Wonder similarly will not strike most listeners as a challenging or transgressive listen, beyond perhaps those conservative enough to be scandalized by references to monogamous sex and marijuana.

To wit, the funky misstep “Teach Me How To Love,” a deeply horny ode to Cabello’s body, is immediately followed by the loneliness lament “Call My Friends,” with its gargantuan sing-along refrain, “I should call my friends and go get high!” The latter is one of many songs seemingly informed by the artful bombast of mid-period Kanye West’s blockbuster critic bait. Sometimes the album seems to steal or borrow outright from that era, such as the “Runaway”-reminiscent piano threaded throughout “24 Hours” or the way “Song For No One” falls off a cliff into blown-out soul reverie like “New Slaves.” More often, Mendes and his core production team of Kid Harpoon, Nate Mercereau, and Scott Harris more generally mimic Kanye’s pan-genre maximalism, building giant walls of sound from guitar, keyboard, and hip-hop drums. Just as fun.’s Some Nights applied this kind of synthetic largesse to emo-pop, Wonder attempts to do the same with prom-king soft-rock and largely succeeds.

Completed under lockdown while holing up at Cabello’s family home in Miami, Wonder also functions as Mendes’ complement to her own falling-in-love dispatch, last year’s Romance, a middling album that didn’t live up to its ambitions. Mendes’ latest sometimes falls victim to the same overly broad fairytale love-story clichés, particularly later in the album as the thematic touchpoints start to wear thin. But Mendes continues to grow as a songwriter, and with the help of his collaborators, he turns Wonder‘s potential repetitiveness into something more like coherence. Particularly when backed by some of the album’s more powerful arrangements, his lyrics feel specific and vulnerable rather than boilerplate.

Often that’s because the album’s scope extends to a few years ago, when Mendes was apparently depressed and crushing hard on Cabello without much hope it would work out. On “Wonder,” the album’s lead single and first proper song, the dawn of their partnership is presented in breathless, grandiose terms: “I wonder what it’s like to be loved by you!” Mendes howls, backed by a choir and an organ-infused rock band cranked to 11. It’s one of his most bracing moments on record so far, one that communicates the intensity of his emotions more effectively than his depression chronicle “In My Blood.” Meanwhile the depressive ballad “Song For No One” captures a more pathetic scene from a few years ago: “Yesterday, I got pretty drunk/ Said some things that I shouldn’t have/ Told you that I really love you/ You did not reciprocate those feelings/ But that’s OK, I’ll be fine anyway.”

Mendes details headspun early flirtations on the clubby, bass-powered “Higher” (one of the album’s staler offerings), urges Cabello to move in with him on the delicate, deconstructed “24 Hours,” and professes his infatuation on “Dream,” a power ballad drowning in M83-worthy synths. With its incessant guitar and peppy lockstep drums, “305” could almost be a Strokes song lost in someone’s pillowy subconscious, while “Always Been You” and “Piece Of You” get a lot of mileage out of pairing haunted organ sounds with a crisp pop beat a la Thriller. I’m surely showing off my generational bias here, but the further Mendes ventures from lounge-y, organic, boomer-friendly soft-rock and embraces loud, synthetic, deconstructed arena grandeur, the more enjoyable Wonder becomes. It’s the first time a Shawn Mendes album has sounded like it has any stakes.

Early on, Mendes’ story was interwoven with Justin Bieber’s. Both are Canadian pop prodigies who found stardom as young teens; Mendes first went viral on Vine by covering a Bieber song; and when asked about Mendes’ rapid rise, Bieber once notoriously responded to an interviewer, “Who’s Shawn Mendes?” That arc rounds to completion midway through Wonder, when Mendes and Bieber finally duet. Their collaboration, a soulful trip-hop number called “Monster,” detours away from the album’s dominant love story to reflect on the perils of teenage superstardom, a subject both singers are intimately familiar with.

Despite an immensely sticky hook, “Monster” lacks the urgency of Wonder‘s best tracks. Although its cries of “Please don’t let me fall!” seem to come from a place of authentic distress, it’s hard to relate with these guys’ plight; unless you’re invested in Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber as characters on celebrity’s grand stage, it’s tough to imagine the song dredging up any feeling at all. But if the track falls flat as a moment of reckoning, its presence at the center of the album at least accentuates how completely Mendes has surpassed Bieber at this phase of their careers. On “Monster,” they are peers and even allies, yet the song is enmeshed in an album far more adventurous and engaging than Bieber’s own 2020 domestic-bliss compendium, the drippy and insular Changes. Mendes sounds like he’s tentatively working his way out of the bland, sanitized middle ground just as Bieber is settling down there for the long haul. It’s reasonable to doubt whether an M.O.R. entertainer like Mendes will ever break through to full-blown creative transcendence, but given how much he’s improved with every outing, I can’t help but wonder.

CHART WATCH

El Último Tour Del Mundo is not just Bad Bunny’s first US #1 album, it’s the first album performed entirely in Spanish to top the chart in this country. The project, Bad Bunny’s third full-length of the year, debuts atop the Billboard 200 with 116,000 equivalent album units and 12,000 in sales. Its total largely comprises 103,000 streaming equivalent units, which equates to 145.94 million on-demand track streams. It’s Bad Bunny’s third top-10 album of 2020 following YHLQMDLG (#2) and Las Que No Iban a Salir (#7).

In at #2 with 60,000 units and 20,000 in sales is Miley Cyrus’ Plastic Hearts, her best-charting effort since 2013’s Bangerz debuted at #1. After BTS, Ariana Grande, and Pop Smoke, Michael Bublé’s former chart-topper Christmas, back up to #6 due to seasonal interest. (Per Billboard, the album has reached the top 10 every year since 2011.) Megan Thee Stallion, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Juice WRLD round out the top 10.

Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” returns to #1 for a sixth nonconsecutive week. After finally making it to #1 last December, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” leaps back up from #14 to #2 and may well end up topping the chart again this season. After Ariana Grande’s “Positions” at #3 comes another holiday classic, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” at #4. Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez’s “Dakiti” reaches a new #5 peak. It’s followed by three more duets: Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” (#6), Justin Bieber and Chance The Rapper’s “Holy” (#7), and Gabby Barrett and Charlie Puth’s “I Hope” (#8). One more Christmas oldie, Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” is up to #9, and BTS slide to #10 with “Dynamite.” (Notably, BTS’ “Life Goes On,” which debuted at #1 last week, falls all the way to #28 in its second frame.)

POP FIVE

Gwen Stefani – “Let Me Reintroduce Myself”
Reminding us of her former glories is not going to distract from Gwen’s continued mediocrity here. If this limp, self-referential ska pastiche is her idea of a pop comeback, her career as a hit-maker is even more completely cooked than I thought.

24kGoldn – “COCO” (Feat. DaBaby)
The artists behind two of this year’s biggest hits have joined forces to create the most atrocious pop-rap monstrosity in recent memory. It will probably go to #1 for seven weeks.

Juice WRLD & Benny Blanco – “Real Shit”
I used to find Juice WRLD obnoxious, but at this point, in the wake of his haunting posthumous album, I am comforted by every new track from the archives, particularly when they’re as effortlessly catchy as this one.

YUNGBLUD – “acting like that” (Feat. Machine Gun Kelly)
I am by no means a real punk, but this must be how real punks felt when blink-182 infiltrated TRL?

Dixie D’Amelio – “One Whole Day” (Feat. Wiz Khalifa)
More than 7 million views on a TikTok influencer’s sister’s vacuous single featuring Wiz Khalifa. Lord help us.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Rihanna is apparently dating A$AP Rocky. [The Cut]
  • In completely unrelated news, Drake has a new candle that “actually smells like Drake.” [Complex]
  • Drake also wrote about his upcoming Nike sublabel NOCTA, which launches 12/18. [Nike]
  • Noah Cyrus apologized for a racist post she made trying to defend Harry Styles. [TMZ]
  • The Saved By The Bell reboot edited out its widely condemned Selena Gomez kidney transplant jokes. [TMZ]
  • Relatedly, Justin Bieber blasted a Selena Gomez fan who he said was encouraging her followers to bully his wife. [Twitter]
  • Bieber also appeared on Ellen. [Ellen]
  • Troye Sivan teased a collab with Kacey Musgraves and Mark Ronson. [Twitter]
  • Mariah Carey is “in talks about an onscreen version” of her recent memoir The Meaning Of Mariah Carey. [Elle]
  • Carey also released a version of her new Christmas single “Oh Santa!” with Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson. [YouTube]
  • Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello released a cover of “The Christmas Song.” [YouTube]
  • Dua Lipa, The Killers, Nine Inch Nails, and Natalia Lafourcade appear in the trailer for Netflix’s Song Exploder season 2. [YouTube]
  • Lil Nas X performed “Holiday” live for the first time for Amazon Music. [YouTube]
  • Carly Rae Jepsen released a video for “It’s Not Christmas Till Somebody Cries.” [YouTube]
  • Jimmy Fallon and the Roots parodied Taylor Swift’s folklore doc, and Chris Martin makes a cameo. [YouTube]
  • Set photos confirm Hailee Steinfeld is playing Kate Bishop in Disney+’s upcoming Hawkeye. [Collider]
  • Bad Bunny did “Te Deseo Lo Mejor” on Corden. [YouTube]
  • Blackpink announced The Show, their first-ever livestream concert, coming to YouTube 12/27. [YouTube]
  • Doja Cat, Lewis Capaldi, and Tones And I will perform at the 2020 YouTube Streamy Awards on 12/12. [ET]
  • Sia did “Hey Boy” at MTV’s Greatest Of All Time Movie & TV Awards. [YouTube]
  • Demi Lovato joins blackbear on a new version of All Time Low’s “Monsters.” [YouTube]

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