All it took was six seconds. This small blip of time was enough to launch Shawn Mendes from his popular Vine account to releasing two solo albums. Working with the basics of popular songs, Mendes covered others’ tracks while putting his own acoustic spin on them. The newest of his albums, Illuminate, steps outside the realm of young, male pop stardom and into more mature, complex territory.
As would be expected, the album deals almost exclusively of love, of heartbreak, budding physical intimacy and how to handle a relationship gone sour. Instead of focusing on the gooey center of a fresh relationship, Mendes often chooses to tackle its hardened end. Tracks like “Three Empty Words” and “Don’t Be a Fool” hint that Mendes is wise beyond his years; he confronts the imminent end in his relationships rather than unnecessarily stringing them out. Echoing artists like John Mayer, the opening song “Ruin” allows Mendes’s voice to echo as the guitar rolls and drawls on with him.
Though much of the album is well developed in sound and lyrics, there are moments when the talk of romance and relationships becomes too much. Slipping into repetitive territory, sections of the work are plagued by lulls. Never spanning more than three tracks, these low moments are characterized by recurrent reassurances that Mendes wants only what is best for his soon-to-be-ex and that the breakup isn’t any easier on him than it is the other party. While all is well and good, when used in excess these traits become stretched and slightly unbelievable. “Like This” and “Don’t Be a Fool” are two songs that unfortunately fall victim to this phenomenon.
Despite its low points, Illuminate is made up of successes. Playing on his various vocal abilities, Mendes pairs his dynamic voice with an equally as varied instrumental scape. Slower tracks feature drawn out, ringing guitar while others, like “Patience,” use strum and slap techniques paired with round, atmospheric tones to create a lively sound. On these lighter tracks, Mendes’s voice shifts from that of a more serious ballad to a spry, soft delivery.
Following in those nimble footsteps, the most notable tracks are those that played into some element of the pop-tune machine. Songs like “Mercy” and “No Promises” have choruses featuring energetic backup vocals and lyrics that are easy to catch on to. Scratching the surface of the playboy pop persona, “No Promises” depicts a no-strings-attached relationship.
Even though the album is filled with talk of love and passion, Mendes barely touches the topic of sexuality and, as this is an album penned by an 18-year-old-boy, its absence leaves something to be desired. That being said, the one track that does tackle this topic head first, “Lights On,” does it very well. Feeding Mendes’s “good guy” persona, “Lights On” is playful as Mendes sings of appreciating his lover’s body. One can almost hear the longing sighs of dedicated fans as Mendes croons, “I can’t deny I want your body.” In directly addressing physical intimacy, “Lights On” branches out from other tracks while pointing toward the potential future of Mendes’s sound.
The mature nature of Illuminate is even more impressive when considering this is only Mendes’s sophomore album. Though young, Mendes’s talent is undeniable — spewing out vocal riffs far more soulful than his years and perfectly executing Ed Sheeran-esque instrumentation. Having only recently turned 18, the possibilities for the young Canadian are multiplying by the minute.