Think what you will of him, internet celebrity-turned-pop phenomenon Shawn Mendes is a force of nature. After a few years of selling out stadiums, churning out hit after hit, and quickly climbing to the tops of charts, Mendes clearly feels he’s ready to take a step back and show us that he’s ready to come into his own. His fourth album, Wonder (★★☆☆☆) is designed to be his big coming-of-age moment.
It’s not. What is meant to be the 22-year-old Canadian’s step into creative maturity feels like somewhat of a mess. Mendes appears to be going for a more relaxed vibe on most of the album’s tracks, but he rarely bothers to do much to make them interesting. What we’re left with is a collection of songs that might be fine as filler on someone’s chill vibes playlist, but taken together are so chill they’re best described as sleepy.
Even standout tracks like “Always Been You” fail to land where they’re supposed to. It’s set up as one of the album’s showstopper anthems, but it feels unfinished, with dramatic bursts of synths and drums in between Mendes intoning “It’s always been you” in a breathy tone that sounds like he just ran a marathon. (The song also does no justice to his vocal range.) A handful of interesting moments feel promising. “305” is a cheerful bit of singer-songwriter filler, inoffensive yet enjoyable. “Piece of You” has elements of a memorable track, with a dark, prowling beat that might indicate a strong future direction.
Broadly speaking, Mendes succeeds in his attempt at turning out a more holistic and creative album that doesn’t hinge on a couple of singles, but for an album set up to be introspective, it remains staunchly in the shallow end of the pool. “Monster,” an attempt at R&B with Justin Bieber, is the worst offender. At least on paper, Bieber wasn’t the worst choice for a collaboration, but the pretense at vulnerability and self-awareness falls flat in the worst way by coming off obtuse, and even a little bratty.
Mendes has made no secret that the entire album was inspired by his current girlfriend, Camila Cabello, herself an acclaimed singer. Knowing Wonder was dedicated to one person, in particular, adds little to the results, since the tracks are so up-front in taking us through the early phases of a young relationship and the feelings of insecurity, self-discovery, and fulfillment that often come along with it.
A large part of what makes Wonder a frustrating listen is that Mendes so clearly wants to convey an abundance of emotions, presenting an image of the person he feels he’s grown into, but he doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of who exactly that person is. It succeeds to some extent in conveying a sense of the singer having woken up and seeing his whole life ahead of him, but fails to go much farther than that.
As a coming-of-age album, Wonder feels premature. It’s held back by its failure to present the kind of depth it so clearly wants to achieve. And yet, it shows us glimmers of a potential creative breakthrough still to come.
Wonder is available to stream on Spotify and Apple Music.
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