Fresh off a tumultuous world tour, a full-on dive into an almost too adorable relationship with fellow music superstar Camila Cabello and a Netflix documentary where he expressed burnout with the music industry, Canadian heartthrob Shawn Mendes has returned with his fourth studio album. It’s very easy to forget that Mendes is still only 22 years old and figuring out his personal, and therefore, musical identity. It makes Wonder his most adventurous and experimental project yet, but unfortunately, not in the best way at all. Although Mendes still frequently surprises with his soulful vocal abilities in more R&B-leaning areas, the majority of this album is a combination of hilariously predictable and clichéd lyrics and baffling tonal shifts as Mendes expresses a surface-level love for Cabello through just about every overdone pop trope of the last couple years, regardless of how well they fit his distinctly nasal voice. Typically known for his acoustic pop tracks, Mendes upgrades to stadium-sized ambitions here with some grandiose blaring synths and percussion that bring in a whole new host of issues and put the album in strong contention for the most poorly mixed project of the year as well. After improving with his last album, Mendes is back to searching for anything to say.
After a brief intro where Mendes reaches frantically for a Bohemian Rhapsody-style pop opera vibe that’s trendy about two years too late and introduces listeners to the terrors to come with some deafening drones of synth wall for a brief couple seconds, the album drops into its title track. Kicking off with another overwhelming blast of layered choral vocals that’s far too loud in the mix, Mendes sets to work on scoring his usual formula to the underlying drone instead of his typical acoustic noodling. Beginning with some quiet and contemplative lyrics that run a gamut of platitudes about various personal and global struggles, Mendes powers up that trademark strain and charges full-speed into an overblown chorus screaming his brains out to a distant crush. Only this time, the introductory choral mixture returns to drown him out, accompanied now by gargantuan drumbeats. It only gets more agonizing from there as the track somehow continues to build up even further until it becomes a torturous cacophony of grating noise by its climax. It’s a pretty representative microcosm of all of the issues to come, and a truly strange choice for a lead single that represented Mendes’ first commercial misfire in years.
The next track “Higher” attempts to recreate the dark tropical R&B vibes of his last hit “Senorita,” but falls flat before it even begins as Mendes immediately repeats a line three times, a trend that continues throughout. The driving chorus and Mendes’ slinky falsetto comes across pretty well, but it’s hard to fully buy into the blaring horns and throbbing bassline when Mendes plays these sensual cuts so sanitized and safe. The opening run continues with “24 Hours,” a track where Mendes vies for that Ed Sheeran-style marriage anthem to be played at weddings until the end of time but somehow falls even more lyrically short with his romantic clichés. Making the track instantly uncomfortable by admitting himself that it’s “a little soon” on a strangely drawn-out vocal line that throws off the rhythm, Mendes croons over tender strings and piano and repeats verses as he borrows some of the most overused lines in musical history, including one that is prominently featured in new pal Justin Bieber’s current top 10 single. It just makes you realize that aside from maybe Adam Levine, Mendes is pop music’s most personality-devoid star.
The track “Dream” had so much potential as the instrumental begins painting an appropriately dreamy soundscape, Mendes adding on some delightfully vintage pop melodies building off of himself like a barbershop quartet as a Cabello apparition visits him in his sleep. Then the wistful piano glitches out and a yawning cavern of industrial synths opens up to destroy the track’s beautiful simplicity. When the meter hits the red zone on your mixing panel, that’s bad, guys. Hearing the gorgeous melody buried under all this distorted nonsense is such a shame. “305” is a strange leap into doo-wop with an instrumental that’s basically a direct recreation of all those overly peppy Neon Trees hits back in the day, Mendes singing “never been so sure in my life” while sounding like he’s barely awake. I suppose that the track “Always Been You” is the album’s best usage of its play with gratingly loud passages, juxtaposing some more musical bombshells with Mendes quietly singing the song’s title with no accompaniment, but the mixing is no less exasperating when used as part of a good idea in theory.
Despite all of the many misfires on this project, there are actually a couple tracks that could easily be argued as being Mendes’ all-time best work. Leaning more into the soulful side that he has been slowly developing over the years, we finally get to see the most engaging side of Mendes’ vocal talent that is lost in all of his strained pushing for high notes. Instead, he flits through suave vocal runs and sinks into more rhythmic grooves. I never would have expected someone like Anderson .Paak to show up on this album, but there he is playing drums on the disco-funk pattern of “Teach Me How To Love.” The track finally sees Mendes get a little steamy with some specific lyrics about romantic exploits getting more enjoyable as commitment deepens. Hearing Mendes divert from the established melody with some more improvisatory lines is such a welcome experience after the cookie-cutter material that preceded it, the triumphant instrumental growing and changing in a refreshingly fluid manner as it introduces a shaker and syncopated guitar patterns as the tension grows. “Piece Of You” is introduced by Mendes vocally riffing and sounding fantastic over little accompaniment, before another strong bassline drops and he unleashes some jazzier notes.Singing about jealousy regarding attention directed at Cabello, it’s another driving and soulful performance that’s nuanced in all the right ways – it could have used a stronger chorus, but it’s easily a standout here. Latest single “Monster” features a stellar vocal performance from Mendes, but it’s his duet partner Justin Bieber ruining the track this time. Mendes’ usual technique of layering two octaves comes off best here, finding the perfect sweet spot to show off the best parts of his range over a funk bassline. Bieber, on the other hand, continues his nauseatingly self-indulgent narratives of late where he expects us to feel sorry for him for being rich and famous with a vocal tone that doesn’t fit the song’s darker mood at all.
The remainder of the songs here continue to be frustrating devoid of anything lyrically interesting or original, and far too many of them contain the album’s typical jumpscare blasts of sound or an abrupt shift in energy or genre. Both just make me want to throw my headphones off. The track “Call My Friends” basically doesn’t go any deeper than the title itself, Mendes feeling lonely on tour and spending an entire track coming to the thrilling conclusion that he should talk to those closest to him. Of course, this is accompanied by a sudden distorted synth explosion fresh off of the Annihilation soundtrack when the chorus hits and one of Mendes most obnoxious melodies as he flits between two falsetto notes repeatedly. “Song For No One” once again begins promisingly with a lo-fi guitar loop backing up a somber track Mendes wrote three years ago contemplating his mistakes in courting Cabello. It’s one of the only moments on the album that actually elicits any kind of emotion, which is nice until a completely inexplicable beat switch from a minor into a major key as Mendes unleashes some falsetto wails over strings and a shaker part reminiscent of the most obnoxious Christmas music. The album concludes with piano ballad “Look Up At The Stars,” a sappy dedication to fans riddled with more eye-rollingly cheesy lines, and “Can’t Imagine,” where Mendes himself admits to struggling to improvise lyrics on the spot in a final ode to a codependence that Mendes honestly makes sound a little insane.
At the end of the day, Mendes was an artist thrust into the spotlight far too early and he’s figuring out how to hone his craft in front of millions of adoring fans. It’s a situation that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. But I’d love to hear him put out an R&B album.
Favourite Tracks: Teach Me How To Love, Piece Of You, Monster
Least Favourite Track: Call My Friends