It’s a short list of artists who’ve managed to score two No. 1 albums by their 18th birthday: Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff, LeAnn Rimes.
And now we can add Canadian singer Shawn Mendes to that list, too.
Mendes’ boy-next-door persona made it easy to compare him to that other Canadian phenom, Justin Bieber, on Mendes’ 2015 debut, Handwritten. This time around, Mendes’ maturing voice and bluesy style also beg comparisons with the likes of Sam Smith, Ed Sheeren and John Mayer.
Like them, Mendes often sounds like a old soul on Illuminate, spinning stories of love and sex and breakups that belie the fact that he’s still actually a teenager.
The best song on the album—and the only one that doesn’t focus on romance—is the final track, “Understand.” Here, Mendes asks for God’s help to stay grounded (“Am I turning into someone else?/And I just pray to God that I’m still who I am”), and encourages others not to lose heart in sometimes painful journey of growing up (“You don’t have to pretend that it’s easy all the time/You just let it go and, and grow with it”).
“Mercy” begs a woman whom Mendes is crushing on to exercise that virtue and reciprocate his affection. He promises, “I’m prepared to sacrifice my life/I would gladly do it twice,” if it meant securing her love. “Like This” finds the singer falling for the charms of someone who’s truthful (“And I love it how she’s honest/You don’t find that nowadays”) even though he says she’s not everyone’s idea of a beauty queen (“She’s not even drop-dead gorgeous/But she kills me anyway”).
On “Ruin,” Mendes tries to sweet-talk a young woman into seeing that he’s the one for her, despite the fact that she thinks settling down with him will “ruin” her. “Treat You Better” revisits this well-worn saw: “I know I can treat you better/Better than he can.” On the flip side, “Don’t Be a Fool” encourages a woman to realize that she can do better: “And don’t be a fool/And say that you love me/’Cause you’ll find a man/Who will stand by your side.”
“Bad Reputation” finds a guy trying to care for a young woman who’s apparently made some pretty poor choices and faced harsh judgment from others. He tells her, “Trust me, I could be the one to treat you like a lady.” “Three Empty Words” wants us to believe that a guy’s willingness to end a relationship he’s become bored with is an expression of honesty and integrity (“We’re going through the motions/’Cause we can’t fix what’s broken”), but …
… that song implicitly suggests that the moment deep feelings aren’t as deep any more, it’s time to bail out.
“No Promises” tries to convince a woman to embrace the moment (read: have sex with a guy) instead of pretending that they’re going to care about each other tomorrow: “Oh no, we don’t need to overcomplicate it/ … Baby, please, no promises/ … So tell me what you want/Take my hands across your body/ … ‘Cause I’ve been living only for this moment.”
“Lights On” is perhaps the album’s most sex-focused song. Mendes begins with a profane leer (“D–n, you look so good with your clothes on”), before moving on to fantasies of what she might look like with them off (“And I can’t deny that I want your body/ … I wanna love you with the lights on/ … And I’d really like to get to know you/Start discovering your secrets/Underneath these very sheets.”)
“Patience” perhaps hints at sexting (“You hit me up, it’s late at night, this is the same old story/Your friends should take your phone away”) as Mendes confesses to caving into the sensual allure of someone he knows he shouldn’t be with (“Ooh, you give me a little taste/Lure me in, then you take it from me/ … You always leave me such a mess”).
“Treat You Better” undermines its chivalrous claims when Mendes goes from singing, “Any girl like you deserves a gentlemen” one minute to seductively coaxing, “Baby, just to wake up with you/Would be everything I need” the next. “Bad Reputation” includes lines that suggest a woman’s nude image has been viewed by multiple young men (“She got a bad reputation/ … And all of my friends’ve seen her naked”).
“Honest” includes the phrase, “I swear to God.”
Allusions to physical intimacy don’t pop up on every love song here. But they show up on quite a few of them, once more reflecting and reinforcing pop culture’s tendency to insist that love and sex are one and the same. It’s pretty clear Shawn Mendes has internalized that thematic focus in his songs.
Mendes admirably tries to swing toward honesty, decency and faithfulness on a number of tracks. But I can’t help but feel that on balance he ends up being a pretty problematic role model for young fans who are internalizing the blurry distinction between love and sex that his songs exemplify more often than not.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.