By Nick Erickson, Staff writer
From Elvis Presley to John Mayer to Ed Sheeran, attractive men and their guitars have been making the world swoon. At merely 18 years old, musician Shawn Mendes has skyrocketed in this vein of musical success these past few years. From his Vine star beginnings, doing six-second covers, to topping the Billboard charts with his single “Stitches,” Mendes is now one of the faces of the pop music scene. Only a year after his debut album “Handwritten,” Mendes’ sophomore release “Illuminate” is anything short of a slump, holding all of the catchiness of his first album, with the songwriting itself more fine tuned.
“Ruin” opens the album with an extremely simple drum beat and some fluctuating guitar plucks. Mendes’ smooth voice follows with a twang similar to Mayer’s. The lyrics are repetitive, yet feel genuinely heartfelt, as Mendes calls out to a former lover. “And I’m not tryna ruin your happiness,” he sings, “but darling, don’t you know that I’m the only one for ya?”
Lead single “Mercy” is a piano and guitar driven tune, with a pounding build up into a bombastic chorus. Mendes shows an intensity within the choruses, with his singing of unrequited love backed by his aggressive strumming. The final chorus with added choir ends on delicate piano chords, ending one of the most infectious hits of the year.
Never afraid to shy away from typical pop-music production, the stripped down nature of “Three Empty Words” will leave listeners with their heart in agony. Mendes, equipped with only an acoustic guitar, sings of a painful breakup. Minimalistic and filled with gut-wrenching honesty, it is a standout song on the record, proving that there is beauty in simplicity. “What’s really gonna break my heart is to have to tell your little brother,” he sings somberly.
Mendes touches upon gospel-influence on “Like This,” showing his inner Hozier. Meanwhile, “No Promises” is groovy, with a clean guitar intro that’s tinged with rhythm and blues vibes. Littered throughout this track is also the juxtaposition of modern pop elements, subtle electronic beat and the infamous use of a “woah-oh” backing chorus.
Closing out the album is another raw track, “Understand.” Simply Mendes’ silky voice, bluesy piano and a steady drumset beat, he sings of staying true to who you as you grow older. As the track begins to dwindle down, Mendes gives a spoken speech on the same matter. “You don’t have to pretend that it’s easy all the time,” he speaks softly over the repeated chord progression, before returning back into doing an impressive job of moving around his notes while singing the last few seconds.
In a scene filled with overproduced, synth-and-pitch-correction-drenched artists on the radio, Mendes is a breath of fresh air. He is not the first artist to make success of performing as a solo act, and will not be the last. However, he manages to put his heart into his work, and captures emotion in his voice and the instrument he plays effortlessly. With “Illumination,” Mendes has proven himself worthy of all the buzz he has been stirring and every second of airplay. With every passionate strum and gritting falsetto, Mendes proves he is more than a pop star.