I’ll admit, before this album, my only experience with Canadian pop singer Shawn Mendes was the chart-topper Stitches, from his 2015 album Handwritten. Consequently, here were some words I associated with him:
And then, along came Illuminate, forcing me to re-examine everything I had ever presumed about Mendes’s music.
The first thing I felt compelled to admit was that Stitches doesn’t do justice to Mendes’s voice. But then again, how could it, with its overpowering beats and backing music? One of the best things about Illuminate is how beautifully understated the tracks are. With only an acoustic backing on many of the songs, Mendes really has a chance to show off all he can do with his voice, not only range-wise, but also emotionally. It’s wonderful to see him use his vocal talent without inhibition rather than hide behind a dense curtain of music. Tracks like Mercy, Don’t Be A Fool and No Promises come together wonderfully with his passionate vocals, catchy tunes, and decent lyrics, and truly highlight why he rose to fame at 16, and how far he has come since.
The lyrical quality of Illuminate also really caught me off-guard- I was expecting fifteen tracks of straightforward, cheesy rhymes, but Mendes breaks the current stereotype of pop lyrics being unable to discuss any genuine content. What is particularly commendable about the songs on this album is the number of themes Mendes manages to cover, while maintaining equally strong lyrics in all of them. A track like Three Empty Words beautifully describes the monotony of a long-term relationship, with lines like: “we’ll play the songs we used to love while we try to fall in love again.” Hold On and Understand both powerfully emphasise Shawn’s struggle with stardom at such a young age:
“Praying that I don’t forget where I belong
and every time I ask myself
Am I turning into someone else?”
While it’s great to see so much variety and introspection on one album, there are always misses. Lights On, with its sexual undertones sounds like an awkward attempt for Mendes to include one such song to keep up with his competition, while maintaining his sweet, boy-next-door image. It must also be said that while the lyrics deserve praise, when it comes to melodies, Mendes falls into the same trap as many mainstream artists. Quite a few of the songs, in spite of taking up completely different topics, use incredibly similar beats, melodies and guitar riffs and it is disappointingly easy to confuse the melody of one song with another, or to create a mash-up of two of them. Perhaps having fewer songs in one album would have helped.
There’s something to be said here about the inadequate way Mendes, and many other pop singers are advertised through promotional singles. The one song that made its way to the charts from Illuminate, Treat You Better, is in fact one of the weaker songs of the album, and after a quick listen to some of his tracks from Handwritten, I realised the same could be applied to Stitches. Neither track truly highlights Mendes’ potential. It’s a shame that most artists are now afraid to break the boundaries and promote a song with a less popular theme than love and breakups – it might be one of the reason for the characterless chart-toppers we find ourselves stuck with today.
At only 18, Shawn Mendes, may still be discovering his style, but I can’t see him as a bland Bieber-wannabe anymore. With such progress in just two years, I look forward to hearing more from him – this album truly did Illuminate his talent, and why he’s here.