Canadian heartthrob Shawn Mendes made his bones playing a version of boy pop that was more James Taylor than Justin Bieber — strumming his acoustic guitar and singing earnestly about the battle scars of romance. He was a dress-shirt-and-sport-coat guy in a sleeve-tat world, and on his self-titled third LP, from 2018, he continued to grow, carefully making the transition to adult themes as he mixed rock moves, Prince-ly vocals, and lyrics about hookups that he hoped might become something bigger.
The deluxe edition of Shawn Mendes tacked on “Señorita,” his steamy hit with girlfriend Camila Cabello. She doesn’t appear here, at least not in corporeal form, but her image looms large. Wonder is essentially a concept album, the concept being Camila Cabello, like, whoa. “Just isn’t fair what you put in the air/I don’t wanna share,” Mendes notes. The whirring synths layered over album opener “Intro” even recall the android hum of Cabello’s signature classic “Never Be the Same.” Mendes goes from the date-night elation of “Higher” to “24 Hours,” a prayerful ode to putting down roots (“Sign the check, and the place is ours/It’s a little soon, but I wanna come home to you”), to the string-bathed R&B sexcapade “Teach Me How to Love.”
The musical settings can be as grand as his romantic ambitions. On previous albums, Mendes’ strongest weapon was his light touch, the way songs like “Nervous” and “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” worked nimble guitar lines and taut rhythms into big payoffs. Wonder is sometimes too grandiose; with its chorale backing vocals, cannon drums, and lyrics about a reality beyond black and white, the gaping title track feels like overreaching, while “Monster,” which features a bad-boy apologia from Bieber, is wan celebrity navel-gazing.
Mendes, who wrote or co-wrote every song on the record, is better when exploring his own real feelings of hope and heartbreak. There’s genuine ache in the feverish “Dreams,” in which he sings about rushing home so he can get his head on his pillow and connect on the astral plane: “You’re asleep in London…. Count back from one hundred.” On “Call My Friends,” she’s back home, and he’s on the road, wandering through fame like a zombie looking for people to get high with: “I need a vacation from my mind,” he sings.
What emerges is a compelling mix of youthful passion and coming-of-age agony. Mendes closes with “Can’t Imagine,” a solo acoustic song where he makes life without his queen sound like a scorched-earth hellscape. Wonder makes you hope he never has to live it.