There are many ways to grow up in pop music: You can test out a new genre, change up your look or start singing about smoking weed. Transitioning your career from teen to adult is the true test of sustainability, and while Shawn Mendes is only 19 years old, his self-titled third LP has passed the test with flying colors.
Over his past two albums, the Toronto native proved himself an affably charming, guitar-slinging foil to the deluge of often-forgettable, pop’n’B-leaning white male stars. He was a family-friendly one-man boy band, churning out hits about love, heartbreak and savior complexes in a post-One Direction world. On his latest, Mendes crosses a bridge to the other side; it’s groovy R&B funk that doesn’t lose the charm of the way his warm vocals sound over the scratchy strum of his guitar.
The album opens with one of its weakest tracks, “In My Blood,” a Kings of Leon-style rocker that feels too big and hollow in the context of the more intimate and silky slices of sensual pop that follow. The best of those get assistance from contemporary pop’s greatest songwriting weapon, Julia Michaels, who co-wrote the exceptionally catchy “Nervous” as well as the lovely, apologetic duet “Like to Be You,” where she offers up her delicate vocals above guest guitarist John Mayer.
Along the way, Mendes sings about relationships more confidently and straightforwardly than ever before. He tackles sex with eloquence — there’s no forced bravado or cheeky, immature metaphors here. On the sly “Where Were You in the Morning,” he does an early-Aughts Mayer impression even better than Mayer himself as he mourns a one-night stand who slipped away before breakfast. On “Fallin’ All in You,” co-penned by Ed Sheeran, the singer sees the more welcoming side of the same equation as a one-night stand turns into something more serious. And Ryan Tedder and Mendes crafted the surefire hit “Particular Taste,” a swooning, funky piece of pop perfection that warns of a girl who is “so specific when she’s at my place” and “so obsessed with the chase.”
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Another highlight is the Khalid duet “Youth,” a generational rallying cry that seems especially meaningful at a time when kids in the age range of Mendes’ fanbase are experiencing school shootings at an alarming rate and leading a national movement against gun violence. On an album of already out-of-character sexy-pop songs, the placement of “Youth,” and its subject matter, feels disjointed. But the track itself is strong on its own and a valiant effort from two bright stars taking advantage of their ever-growing platforms.
A few years can do wonders, and while Mendes is rapidly growing as an artist in front of the world’s eyes, he still has maturing to do. The lyrics on Shawn Mendes have their share of male savior complexes and villainous women (“Queen,” specifically, is an eye-roll-inducing bop), though he’s not as aggressive in this regard as the male pop stars who have come before him or many of his contemporaries. Mendes’ strength is in romance, and more than ever before, this teenager seems like he not only believes the words he is singing, but he’s actually lived through the emotions behind them.