Shawn Mendes – 18 and releasing his second album – rose to fame three years ago singing six-second cover snippets on Vine, mastering the micro hooks that define current popcraft from the inside. His own songs often start with his guitar (his debut album was titled Handwritten), at once as disarmingly intimate as a singer-songwriter confession and as layered with melodic and rhythmic bait as a Major Lazer single. As a growing audience has demanded something more personal from their hits than self-empowerment slogans (thank Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, and include Tove Lo and Justin Bieber’s guitar-centric “Love Yourself”), he’s been poised to take center stage.
Illuminate mixes professions of romantic agony like “Mercy” (where a quietly hummed hook explodes into crashing drums), with nice-boy valentines like “Treat You Better” and bedroom come ons like “Lights On.” Two-thirds of the album is produced by Sheeran collaborator Jake Gosling, and deploys Sheeran’s mix of familiar pop vestments (electric guitar solos that float with John Mayer weightlessness, gently worried vocals that owe as much to Justin Timberlake as to gospel or R&B). If you think that seems third hand, you might be right. But you’re definitely too cynical for music that mixes this much sincerity and cunning, a trick Mendes first learned six seconds at a time. “I’m not trying to come off too strong,” he says after telling one young lady how good she looks with her clothes on. “But you know I can’t help it.” Exactly.