The 22-year-old Canadian heartthrob is back with another assemblage of tracks that will surely appease his devout “army,” but will do little to change the minds of critics and only disappoint his bellwether listeners.
Since Shawn Mendes‘ released his self-titled album in 2018, he has exploded into one of the most popular artists in music today. He sent his collaboration with Camilla Cabello “Senorita” to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and scored three Grammy nominations, while the Pop power coupled made headlines with their every (cringeworthy) move. With that level of commercial and even critical success, there was some standard of expectations set for his follow-up LP, of which Mendes seems to have missed nearly all.
Where the arrangements and instrumentations excel, Mendes’ songwriting flounders; his knack for writing catchy choruses is nearly completely absent on the vast majority of his fourth LP. Every single chorus feels like it was the first one to pop into Mendes’ head upon reading his own poetry, tepid and pedestrian. “Song For No One” is by far the most egregious offender, with cliched lyrics and a cringey Christmas-music sounding bridge that does nothing to make the song sound anything but melodramatic. His lyricism is painfully taut, devoid of any depth or metaphors where there is so much potential.
The subject matter across “Wonder” is merciless retreading of the same themes that have dominated his previous records, with little to show in growth. He’s “Nervous” once more on “305,” briefly pensive on “Monster” ala “Youth” with Khalid, but most of all, sensitive, yet still somehow at arm’s length. He wonders about being less “of a man” for a split second on “Wonder,” but then blows past it without examining it, like a kid may attempt to ignore their fears.
That being said, one sign of artistic development lies in the 80s electronic production that he has adopted that is, in many instances, quite lush. It’s these instrumental sections that are by far the highlight of the record, particularly the vocal layering on “Dream.” Unfortunately, it too often feels forced or out of place, as Mendes again can’t quite figure out how to move out of John Mayer’s comfort zone when he would likely be rewarded if he tried.
Despite all of these shortcomings, “Wonder” does manage to show Mendes’ skills as a vocalist, finally growing into the potential that the world saw in him as a 16-year-old. While he has always been an incredible singer, knowing exactly which phrases to lean on when performing, his repour as a vocalist has been more shoddy, sounding unintentionally coarse on hits like “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back.” Here, he demonstrates impressive control of his voice, often soaring high with a nice, clean sounding placement, while his lovely falsetto continues to make fans across the globe swoon.
“Wonder” proves to be a frustrating listen rather than a painful one, with Mendes being the only one to stand in his way. On the only self-written track “Can’t Imagine” – a clear antithesis to the album’s title – he commits, and writes the most mundane and rudimentary guitar ballad possible, slapping it at the album’s end to hide his solo work rather than embrace it. At this point, it’s worth “wondering” if he’s ever going to break through at all.