Shawn Mendes’ Conjures ‘Wonder’ With His Latest Album, but Not Much Depth

Shawn Mendes makes music for people who think that Justin Timberlake has too much personality. Listening to his new album “Wonder,” it’s easy to see why he’s amassed a legion of fans — his songs are built on crisp melodies and feature eminently singable hooks. But this is the safest possible music being released right now, squeaky clean singer-songwriter pop that captures the listener’s attention without demanding their focus, yearns towards sentiment without conveying deep feeling, and eschews libidinal impulses almost entirely. Music that tweens can listen to and feel grown up while their parents tune in to feel hip, “Wonder” offers broadly appealing, easily digestible musical pleasures guaranteed not to challenge anyone who might be listening, but also not necessarily destined to linger afterward, either.

There’s no doubting Mendes’ sincerity — that comes through crystal clear in every one of these songs, which come straight from the 22-year-old’s heart. But there’s just not much it seems like he has faced to complicate his views about love and life, perhaps a virtue for a pop star on the rise but it doesn’t give his songs dimension or complexity. In interviews accompanying the album’s first single, the pretty, anthemic title track “Wonder,” he indicated that it marked the first time he’d even allowed himself to be reflective in his music; but when he sings “I wonder what it’s like to be loved by you,” he’s either not digging very deep, or deep enough to dig. In a year of profound reflection for pretty much everybody, we’ve gotten records from everybody from Fiona Apple to Miley Cyrus that really articulated a point of view about their lives, and life in general, full of revelatory introspection and unflattering honesty. Those songs may not have Mendes’ automatic sweetness, but they resonate more strongly than these cotton-candy confections that dissolve instantly as you hear them.

Again, however, you can’t deny his chops as a singer and songwriter, transitioning from ballads to club-worthy tracks with an effortlessness that few of his contemporaries possess. “Higher” really is the best banger that Timberlake never recorded, bouncing forward on a beat that sounds like a dance remix of White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” (without Mendes’ honeyed come-ons in place of its explosive chorus) while the young singer shifts into the upper registers of his range as he sings “As long as we’re together, no I can’t get much higher.” Unfortunately, he detours too frequently into mealy-mouthed confessions like “24 Hours,” where he sings about the joy of cohabitating with his lover: “All it’d take is 24 hours / Sign the check and the place is ours/ It’s a little soon/ But I want to come home to you.” The bummer about a song like this is there probably should be more like it — about mature long-term commitment — but this particular one is at best chum for the wedding DJ industrial complex, and should not be played anywhere outside of a tearful reception where a bride and groom are mashing cake in each other’s faces.

The closest Mendes gets to a true expression of sensuality is “Teach Me How To Love,” where he ask his lover how to make her feel good with language safe enough for a junior high dance: “Put my hands around you / Ooh, teach me how to / Touch you, tease, caress you, and please you.” But much of the album is dominated by tracks like “Dream,” odes to his partner — never mentioned with enough specificity to threaten the fantasies of his fans — where he beautifully harmonizes like a one-man boy band and sings with a dopey earnestness (“Hello, hello, hello, walking through a meadow/ Full of sunflowers, picking off the petals”). And yet in between these deeply safe, prefab chart busters, he does occasionally step back to deliver something with a more dynamic arrangement, and that at least approximates a sense of intimacy: “Song For No One” starts just with him and a guitar before erupting into a full wall-of-sound fill as he sings “Yesterday, I got pretty drunk / Said some things that I shouldn’t have/ Told you that I really love you/ You did not reciprocate those feelings / But that’s okay, I’ll be fine anyway.”

Eventually, the album becomes a bit of a dialectic between those breakout moments of sincere creativity and a conspicuous savviness about the audience he wants to reach. “Always Been You” similarly uses that quiet-loud juxtaposition to draw the listener in and then give them a tidal-wave musical payoff, but the end result sounds like a more calculated version of “Song For No One.” “Monster,” featuring Justin Bieber, straddles that line very well as they two of them ruminate on their fame and the challenges of living up to public expectations; similarly, “Piece of You” seems to get him out of his head, easy as that terrain might be to traverse, as he apes The Weeknd’s agonized falsetto with a mid-tempo dance track where he confesses his jealousy for a woman he knows that “everybody wants a piece,” and he doesn’t want to share. 

But overall, Mendes’ versatility is as practiced and superficial as his purported look inside himself; I mean, maybe he’s really marveling at the blessings of his relationship on “Look Up At The Stars,” but more likely, he decided he needed a new first song for his nightly encore, and this one will bring out so many lighters he’ll burn down Madison Square Garden. Even at 22, he’s a veteran of the music scene, having debuted seven years ago, and understands the effect his music has on audiences, and caters to their needs without pushing outside their comfort zone. “Wonder” reminds fans just how masterful he is as an entertainer, completely in control of their experience; to say he gives them exactly what they want would be an understatement. But for someone who’s made a lot of great music, it’s still unclear if he really has anything to say as an artist.

Wonder” releases Dec. 4 on Apple Music.