Critical Voices: Shawn Mendes, Illuminate

October 3, 2016

Photo: Flickr

When Shawn Mendes first broke out onto the scene in 2014, he was fresh-faced and stealing teen hearts everywhere. It’s 2016 and his new album, Illuminate, plays with a more mature sound, touching on topics of sex and domestic abuse. Mendes’ vocals shine in this album, and his declaration that he’s an adult artist is apparent, but his presentation falls flat, and Illuminate comes off as generic and uninspired.

Mendes’ sophomore album relies heavily on him crooning about his heart/loveless relationship/general sadness in a generic and forgettable ballad. “Ruin,” the album opener where Mendes laments about an unrequited love, introduces Illuminate as a bluesy album. The backing instrumental is a simple arrangement of a repetitive drum loop punctuated by languid chords on the guitar. “Ruin” serves to set the tone for the rest of the album: sad and slow. The majority of his album follows this same formula, causing the album to blur into one continuous haze of acoustic teen angst.

After frontloading the album with woe and misery, Mendes rewards the listener for reaching the end of the album with a small handful palatable songs. “Lights On” is uncharacteristically peppy for this album, but backed by a mellow chorus and light hearted plucking at the guitar; it adds a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy album. “Honest” is a bubbly break up song masquerading as a love song, in which Mendes showcases his range with the high notes, playful guitar riffs and a nice steady drum beat anchoring the song.

But even after these somewhat redeeming moments, the final song on Mendes’ album, “Understand,” is yet another let down. The song sounds derivative of the rest of Illuminate until the three minute mark. Mendes launches into a minute long, insincere spiel about growing up and not “holding on to the old you,” since, “it’s just changing, because that’s what happens in life.” It was the lackluster frosting on an already mediocre at best cake.

Despite the album’s production flaws, Mendes demonstrates a phenomenal control over his voice, managing to capture a sort of world-weariness that lends itself well to the mature sound he’s aiming for in Illumination, with a heavy emphasis on the acoustic guitar and simplistic drumbeats. However, the majority of the songs on this album are sad and slow, and the album itself is cohesive to a fault. The songs sound so similar to each other that you’ll frequently find yourself checking and re-checking to see if you accidentally pressed repeat, only to find out that it was a different, yet very similar track.

This is by no means a bad album. Mendes is a very talented singer, and this album has an overall nice aesthetic – it’s just lacks diversity of sound and is rather unoriginal. He’s come a long way from cover videos on Vine, but Illuminate has yet to be the album that marks Mendes’ transition into an established artist with a unique sound. Mendes is already acknowledged as a strong vocalist, and he delivered on that front, but ultimately, humdrum production prevented him from truly proving himself to be the adult and artist that he wishes to be seen as.


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