By Richard Behr
Shawn Mendes, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist from Canada, lives in stardom since the mid-2010s, ever since his debut LP “Handwritten” from 2015 made the top of the charts, both in his homeland as well as in the US. His singles throughout the years, like “Stitches”, “Treat You Better”, “In My Blood”, and “Lost in Japan”, not to forget his duets with Camila Cabello (“I Know What You Did Last Summer”, “Señorita”), created a massive fanbase and influenced a global style in pop radio. Similar with his follow-up albums, when “Illuminate” (2016) and self-titled “Shawn Mendes” (2018) just like his debut shot on the first place in Canada and America. His fourth release “Wonder”, released in December 2020, accomplished the same feat and made him the youngest male artist in the US (and second youngest after Britney Spears) to top the Billboard 200 with four studio albums in a row. A lot to sink in for Shawn, who originally was just one of the many cover singers on the former video hosting service Vine, where he gained a big following after posting his cover version of Justin Bieber’s “As Long as You Love Me”. The rest is history, though the massive success throughout the years now and then made him admit to hardly finding the time to breathe, and in the Netflix documentary Shawn Mendes: In Wonder (released as a prelude before the album release) he’s sharing his battle of depression and anxiety as well as not always able to give his all, especially after his last tour, when he shows his miserable state when forced to cancel his concert in São Paulo, Brazil, due to vocal issues.
It showcases the human side of Shawn Mendes who enjoys the big tours but misses his hometown, highlighting the importance of his family, his longtime friends and his girlfriend Camila, and was seeking for an infectious feeling for the next album. Then his sister Aaliyah on one day showed him her playlist of music that ranged from oldies by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Frankie Valli, and the latter’s hit record “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” on that list gave Shawn the chills, saying to himself: “This is it.” The 1967 classic, notable for its calm start that transcends into a surprising orchestrated refrain where Frankie belts out “I love you, baby!”, inspired Shawn with the song’s ‘big massive feeling’, shaping the vision for his fourth studio album “Wonder”.
The massive feelings he envisioned for “Wonder” start off right away with a one minute and two seconds “Intro”, a sort of foreword of the album that in a short time wraps up what to expect with calm piano sounds that is followed by spaced out and dreamy sound effects. In the music video, released as trailer for the album, Shawn lays on the ground while reaching with his hand the notes of his piano, referencing Freddy Mercury in the film “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and ends with two hummingbirds outside of his balcony window flying towards open waters and diving into the sea. Singing of getting ‘lost in wonderland’, it’s truly like a dive into the water, foreshadowing the feels of happiness, freedom and euphoria that right away carries on into the title track “Wonder”, released as the lead single from the album. In deep thoughts about the world, his friends, and his surroundings, he imagines scenarios about different aspects from love to self-doubt to even questioning the image of masculinity (“I wonder, when I cry into my hands / I’m conditioned to feel like it makes me less of a man”). The anthemic song in a power ballad package acts as the theme of the album, strengthened in visual form when Shawn hops from scene to scene like in a dream scenario: making his way to the top of a moving train, into the forest, then ending up on the edge of a cliff with a view of a sea that splashes the waves right into his direction.
It’s obvious: Shawn is high on life, and uses spacy effects and powerhouse tracks to widen the experience. Often as an element of surprise, like in “Always Been You” that starts off with an orchestra for 14 seconds, and afterwards swaps with either quiet strings in the verses or massive drums in the hook. And just like “Always Been You” are most tracks dedicated to his girlfriend Camila. When in “Higher” he describes a fresh love during a New York night, playing dusky and cool without trying too hard, the follow-up tracks change the feel as if he’s floating on Cloud 9, putting on his rose-colored glasses and enjoying his relationship to the fullest. Either with Bruno Mars vibes in “Teach Me How to Love” (with Anderson .Paak playing drums and percussion, btw) or in classical 50s elements in slow-dance “24 Hours” based on the first time living with Camila together in the West Village apartment in New York. The story continues, when he dreams about her when she’s not with him in spaced-out “Dream”, or shares feelings of jealousy and insecurity in bass-filled “Piece of You” when he notices that other guys fall for his girlfriend, too.
The dimensional view of his relationship is a great inside look into his feelings, although now and then goes a bit deep into his dreamy atmosphere, when songs like “305” let you fall right into a romantic comedy, or in stripped down acoustic album closer “Can’t Imagine”, solely written by Shawn himself, singing how he “can’t imagine what a world would be” without Camila and adding “without you all the birds would stop their songs”. These themes go on and on, but make it refreshing when other songs like “Call My Friends” or “Monster” change up the lyrical content. Described by Shawn as having an insane bass line and energy, “Call My Friends” indeed is filled with energetic sounds, longing to hang out with his friends in a bar at his home town, the ones that stayed by his side before and after the fame, and reminding himself to call them up. And in “Monster” actually questions being on a so-called pedestal – the celebrity life, the life as a famous singer: how the industry raises you up high and can easily tear you down. Shawn questions the pedestal-life, asking “What if I trip? What if I fall? Then am I the monster?”, and Justin Bieber, who’s featured on the track, starts off his story from when he was 15, the good and the not so good, but still ‘taking responsibility for everything he’s done’. A more standard poppier sound compared to the rest of the album, but lyric-wise very deep about the fame bubble, even though Justin actually goes more in depth about his experiences.
While Shawn not only let himself inspire by Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Get My Eyes Off You” for “Wonder”, but also covered a BBC live version of Valli’s song in his own piano-driven stylistic take for the album’s deluxe version, it truly follows the theme of the entire LP; endless love and euphoria. In addition, “Wonder” showcases the element of surprise, just like with that classic song, when many of the album tracks go from calm to massive, quiet then loud, borrowing some 50s and 60s sound effects in between (most notably 60s elements in “Look Up at the Stars”, an ode to his fans). Even the 1940s are covered, when Shawn collaborates with his girlfriend Camila Cabello once again on “The Christmas Song” – a Jazz-filled cover version of the 1945 song of the same name by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé (also featured on the deluxe edition). Massive feels with electronic effects take over with lyrics full of pages from a love diary, but also reveals self-doubt, depression, and anxiety in between. With sadness and loneliness in tracks like “Song for No One” that with acoustic guitar and Jazz elements (including horns, strings, harps, and rattles) still is able to lift up feelings. Just like in his film In Wonder when he explains “I’m writing about anxiety more as a companion that I have to live with and less of an enemy that I’m trying to resist.” To sum it up, his fourth album “Wonder” makes the best of it and rather puts focus on positivity, so much sometimes as if being on an euphoric trip and ending somewhere in dreamland. A mix of styles that can be applauded, though doesn’t always have the same effect on every song, most likely due to similarities in direction and lyrics. But nonetheless, the ones that stand out are able to deliver, with Shawn’s words “Cool, that’s good for now” at the end of closer “Can’t Imagine” literally indicating a fulfilled vision.
Full Track List:
Teach Me How to Love
Call My Friends
Song for No One
Monster (Shawn Mendes & Justin Bieber)
Always Been You
Piece of You
Look Up at the Stars
The Christmas Song (Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello)
Can’t Take My Eyes Off You – BBC Live Version