Shawn Mendes, ‘Illuminate’ – Album Review


shawn-mendes-illuminate-island

★★★½

Canadian teen-pop heartthrob Shawn Mendes goes bigger, more mature on enjoyable, respectable, sophomore album, Illuminate

Canadian teen-pop heartthrob Shawn Mendes has been promoting sophomore album Illuminate all summer long.  Mendes broke through in 2015 with his platinum-certified album Handwritten, which spawned a big hit with “Stitches.” Prudently, Mendes sought to release his sophomore album sooner than later and at least critically, it pays off.  There is a newfound maturity throughout the course of Illuminate.  Shawn isn’t a kid anymore…well, sort of.

“Ruin” 

Ruin” opens Illuminate with a bang.  Mendes doesn’t ruin – rather miss – an opportunity to shine, showcasing soulfulness and grit within his voice. “Ruin” sets the tone for Illuminate, an album that ultimately shows the teen artist maturing and embracing a wider audience.  The only rub? Arguably, could’ve been the second song on Illuminate as opposed to the opener (nitpicking).

Mercy” – one of many songs co-written by Teddy Geiger – maintains the high watermark established by “Ruin.” Arguably, given the quick tempo and high energy, “Mercy” could’ve been the album opener. Dramatic, Mendes once more amplifies the expressiveness of his pipes, further encouraged by gospel-infused backing vocals.  The topic is cliché (“please have mercy on my heart”), but “Mercy” has hit written all over it.

“Treat You Better”  

Initially, we (The Musical Hype) weren’t high Treat You Better,” criticizing it as sounding ever too similar to “Stitches.” While the similarities remain, “Treat You Better” is well-rounded and enjoyable.  Given its catchiness, it’s unsurprising that the record has become a top-10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.  As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Three, Empty Words” finds Mendes scaling things down – it’s more stripped and intimate. It serves as a stark contrast to the fun and catchier “Treat You Better.” His vocals are clear and well produced.  The production isn’t flashy, but pure, simple, and effective. The addition of backing vocals and more instrumentation (strings) is beautiful and quite musical. “Three, Empty Words” continues to show Mendes’ vast musical capabilities. It isn’t the most exciting record, but sound. 

“Don’t Be a Fool” 

Maturity continues to be the M.O. on Don’t Be a Fool.” Vocally, Mendes sounds fantastic, showcasing the sheer radiance of his instrument. He infuses every ounce of passion, which is shown through the rasp and earnestness of his voice. An old-school record chocked full of blues, Mendes makes it sound ripe and relevant.

The balladry of “Like This” is polished.  Mendes’ nuances are incredible.  He has the perfect instinctiveness to know when to push and when to pull back.  Excellently produced, “Like This” doesn’t reveal all its cards from the start. “No Promises” accelerates the pace a bit. It has an urban contemporary touch.  It’s not full-on contemporary R&B, but meant to be fun and flirty and quasi-simulate that style. Mendes executes its soundly, oscillating between his lower register and a respectable falsetto.

“Lights On” 

“Lights On” kicks off with a guitar, a key instrument throughout Illuminate.  Once more, the sound is urban contemporary-infused pop. The production work remains strong; it isn’t overdone or corrupt with a bag of tricks. Notably, Mendes “breaks the seal” of squeaky, clean teen-pop:

“Damn, you look so good with your clothes on.” 

Sure, there’s a clever chivalrousness throughout the song and the excerpted line, but he doesn’t rule out sensual things either:

“Start discovering your secrets / underneath these very sheets / your skin’s so perfect up against me / your lips are talking when we don’t speak.”

The gentle production work of “Honest” is a selling point.  There’s nothing too crazy throughout the course of Illuminate.  Once more, Mendes flaunts his lovely falsetto on the refrain. After powering through much of Illuminate, the falsetto serves as it’s a sensational contrast. “Patience” is groovy, but laid-back at the same time. In effect, it balances two extremes. Mendes’ vocal timbre on the refrain is golden – in the grittiest way possible.  The chorus itself is great:

“First you say you love me then you say you don’t / I wake up in the mornin’ and I’m all alone / tell me that you will and then you say you won’t / Can you make your mind up? / Cause I’m losin’ my patience.”

“Bad Reputation” 

“Bad Reputation” is a heavy song for an 18-year old, but well-written and ultimately, authentic.  The use of cello adds to the drama.  The best moment is undoubtedly the chorus:

“And I don’t care what they say about you baby / they don’t know what you’ve been through / and trust me, I could be the one to treat you like a lady / let me see what’s underneath, all I need is you.” 

“Understand” concludes the standard edition, establishing itself as the inspirational, gospel-tinged closer.  Interestingly, it features commentary by Mendes. Does he sound mature? Somewhat. He’s maturing, but still young.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, Illuminate is an enjoyable, well-rounded sophomore album from Shawn Mendes.  Clearly, Mendes has his eyes on the bigger picture, truly showing progression as an artist.  What makes this effort successful is the fact that he doesn’t alienate his young fan base (one damn aside) and he invites an older audience to give him a look.  All in all, Illuminate is a winner.

Gems: “Ruin,” “Mercy,” “Treat You Better,” “Don’t Be a Fool” & “Bad Reputation”  

Shawn Mendes • Illuminate • Island • Release: 9.23.16
Photo Credit: Island

Publishing Note: This review was originally published on The Musical Hype as Shawn Mendes Steps Up His Game on ‘Illuminate’ on Monday, September 26, 2016.  

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