‘Why are we wasting time?” wailed Shawn Mendes on Treat You Better, the multiplatinum hit from his last album, Illuminate. It’s a sentiment you find yourself revisiting while watching Shawn Mendes: In Wonder, a deadly feature-length Netflix documentary that accompanies the release of his similarly titled new album. As it unspools, Mendes emerges as a kind of earnest pop singer-songwriter analogue of Ed Sheeran, albeit a very North American one: Sheeran’s beloved Nizlopi and Damien Rice are replaced as chief inspirations by John Mayer – the pop-rock heart-throb John Mayer of Your Body Is a Wonderland, not the latter-day John Mayer who jams 20-minute versions of Dark Star and Drums/Space in a reconstituted version of the Grateful Dead called Dead and Co.
Despite his 150m album sales, Sheeran still looks like your brother’s stoner mate who’s spent the past six months living on someone else’s sofa, whereas Mendes is muscled, matinee-idol handsome and orthodontically perfect, our friends across the Atlantic traditionally preferring their pop stars just so. And he emerges as a thoroughly nice bloke: talented, sensible, kind to the hysterical teens who throw themselves upon him during meet-and-greets. His family back in the suburbs of Ontario seem nice, too. So do his mates from home and his girlfriend, fellow pop star Camila Cabello.
The problem for the documentary makers is that niceness tends to write white. If you’re not possessed of a burning desire to see the singer’s ripped torso in the shower, or Mendes and Cabello making goo-goo eyes at each other, nothing of interest happens over the course of In Wonder, unless you count Mendes nearly losing his voice and cancelling a gig, an event it spends 10 brain-melting minutes examining in detail with the music of Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds swelling dramatically on the soundtrack as it did during Broadchurch, when murdered bodies were discovered and lives fell apart.
A similar problem bedevils Mendes’s fourth album, if you can say a release that’s clearly destined to move millions of units is bedevilled by anything. Mendes has a good voice and is capable of octave-leaping power, but does tend to overdo the tremulous vibrato.
And there’s a gap where the personality should be. He makes all the right noises about topics that might be important to his teen fanbase – toxic masculinity, anxiety, the pressure of living life under the unblinking eye of social media – but he doesn’t make them in a way that you, and presumably they, haven’t already heard umpteen times. He spends an enormous amount of Wonder metaphorically making goo-goo eyes at Camilla Cabello, and fair enough – but it would be useful if were able to express his ardour in something other than cliches. There’s a lot of dancing on rooftops in the moonlight and little twists of fate; we are informed that – this just in – romance is like a fairytale and wise men say only fools rush in. 24 Hours is something of an improvement, but even then you admire it more for its functionality than anything: tricked out with lines about mortgages – “sign the cheque and the place is ours” – and settling down, it might well follow Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud in soundtracking first dances at weddings for the rest of time.
At its least appealing, the music follows suit, dealing in boilerplate pop of varying hues: ponderous-verse-into-epic-chorus balladry; sugary indie guitars on 305 and Teach Me How to Love, dance pop so unmemorable it’s a wonder Mendes didn’t forget he was singing it and wander off midway through.
But, just occasionally, something from outside the standard palette of current pop grabs your attention: the abstract intro and dynamic stops and starts of Always Been You, the distorted glam-y riffing of Call My Friends’ chorus, the lovely massed harmonies that appear over shifting, fluttering synths midway through Dream. The mind boggles a little at the notion that it took four people to write the album’s intro – 60 seconds of music involving a one chord sequence and six lines of lyrics – but there’s no denying it’s a lovely chord sequence, satisfying and Beatles-esque. Look Up at the Stars, meanwhile, is melodically great: a bit of harmony laden, 70s-influenced pop, not a vast distance from the stuff on his sometime collaborator Tobias Jesso Jr’s solitary but wildly acclaimed solo album from 2015.
There’s something there, buried though it is amid the musical and lyrical truisms, that nods faintly towards a career that might continue after the screaming stops. It seems improbable, given most of Wonder, but as the current frontman of Dead and Co might attest, stranger things have happened.
This week Alexis listened to
Goth Babe: Sometimes
Another track I overlooked this year, culled from a friend’s Best of 2020 list: a great song from the lo-fi bedroom pop lane.