Album Review: It’s a ‘Wonder’ That Some of These Songs Left the Studio

Leave it to Shawn Mendes to close out this terrible year with what just may be the sloppiest, noisiest, and most confusing album of 2020. Wonder will leave you wondering how most of these songs left the studio. His fourth record, preceded by its titular track, a Justin Bieber collaboration, and a Netflix documentary, was set up to be a moment of triumph. Off the strength of his last album, which housed his first Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit in “Señorita” and garnered three Grammy nominations, Wonder was supposed to further cement Shawn’s spot as one of the reigning princes of pop alongside the likes of The Weeknd and Ed Sheeran. Instead, this haphazard mess of an album feels like a bad joke.

Shawn Mendes: In Wonder, the Netflix documentary that preceded the release of Wonder by about a week and a half, gave us an inside look at Shawn’s creative process in the studio, his romance with Camila Cabello, the trials and tribulations of his last world tour, and more. The remarkably actionless doc should have been a warning for this remarkably boring record. For Wonder, Shawn recruited Ricky Reed (Lizzo’s “Tempo” and “Juice”), Kid Harpoon (Harry Styles‘ “Adore You” and “Falling”), Scott Harris (Shawn’s “In My Blood” and “If I Can’t Have You”) and more. Somehow, these brilliant minds couldn’t have come up with more than two good songs on the fourteen song album. Early in the documentary, there’s a scene where Shawn is in a car listening to Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” He’s absolutely enamored with the track’s robust instrumentation and horn arrangements. It’s unclear if the song has put Shawn under some kind of spell (possibly a curse), but he spends most of Wonder trying to recreate the magic of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” He even included a live cover of the song on one of the two deluxe editions of the album released in the middle of the tracking week in the face of startlingly low sales predictions. Shawn has production credits on 12 out of the 14 tracks on the album, and that’s about as many songs that inexplicably transform into brassy synth breakdowns at any given moment.

There are almost too many issues with Wonder to list. The songwriting is mind-numbingly repetitive and ridiculously vapid, the sequencing of the album is nothing short of a disaster, the production is entirely too noisy and just plain baffling, and the theme seems to be non-existent. Wonder is populated by love songs inspired by Camila Cabello that entirely rely on cliché and can’t help themselves from being boring. It’s almost funny that Wonder spends the majority of its time exploring the newfound love Shawn has apparently been introduced to by Camila, and yet, the central question of the lead single is “I wonder what it’s like to be loved by you?” What makes Wonder incredibly frustrating is how strong the album starts off. Twinkling piano and a tender vocal mark a brief “Intro” that leads into the title track, which still sounds just as good as it did when it dropped a few weeks ago. Honestly, the writing was on the wall from the intro. There is absolutely no need, nor is there a use, for an album intro that does not properly blend into the first full-length track, at the very least. Wonder is so concerned with feeling “bigger” than Shawn’s previous albums that it lacks the attention to detail that truly makes an album great. “Higher” tries to recreate the alluring sexiness of “Lost In Japan,” but the lyrics are not only repetitive, they don’t really make any sense. With an awkward attempt at a sultry tone, Shawn sings “Last year was a broken heart/Last year was a broken heart/Last year was a broken heart/Damn, flip it around, what a beautiful start.” Yes, he repeats that line three times (with little to no change in intonation), but the real question is… what exactly are we flipping around? A broken heart was last year? “Heart broken” instead of “broken heart?” However you slice it, the lyrics are just plain bad. And that’s not even the entirety of the first verse. Shawn immediately falls back on the clichés of dancing on rooftops in the moonlight, and, somehow, he makes that sound like that’s the last thing anyone would want to do. The saddest part of all of this is that “Higher” is one of the relatively stronger songs on the album. There’s also “Teach Me How To Love” a slightly funky uptempo number that is really only enjoyable because it’s easy to imagine it as a reject from After Hours or Future Nostalgia.

Island

Before we get to “Teach Me How To Love,” however, Shawn forces us to sit through “24 Hours,” one of the worst ballads of the year. This song’s chief offense is the “I heard that once a wise man said
‘Only fools go rushing in'” lyric. We’ve heard this line a billion times before for about five decades now, and it was used this year on Justin Bieber’s “Holy.” Interestingly, Justin stars on the only other good song on the album (“Monster”) besides the title track. “24 Hours” hints at marriage, but you would think that a song with such a lofty concept would try a bit harder to be more inventive. Speaking of ballads, the ones on Wonder are terrible. They’re mainly terrible because these songs rarely get to settle into actually being ballads. Instead, they get swallowed in Shawn’s constant attempts at trying to recreate the grandiosity of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” It’s like this never-ending mixture of Coldplay, Labrinth, Imagine Dragons, and John Mayer that crumbles into dust under its own weight. Shawn has a vision of the sound he wants to create, but the collaborators he chose (including the decision to put himself behind the boards) were not the right team to execute that vision at all. Take, “Dream,” for example. The song sees Shawn pining for Camila after spending time apart, but the blaring synths absolutely destroy any tenderness Shawn tries to get at lyrically or vocally. This song, like many others that Shawn had a hand in producing, feels like Shawn was just pressing buttons at random in the studio without any care for how different elements of a song work together. In the documentary, “Always Been You” was previewed extensively. The snippets shown in the doc were pretty great. In full, the song does not hit. At all. “Song For No One” and “305” are also far from good. The former is an awful concoction of strings, drums, and Shawn’s shrieks that makes absolutely no sense. The latter feels like an unfinished demo, much like most of Wonder. The latest single from the album, “Call My Friends,” is also pretty forgettable. The one memorable part is that Shawn chose the most annoying vowel to riff on in the hook.

It would be great if Wonder ended on a positive note. Instead, the final two tracks, “Look Up At The Stars” and “Can’t Imagine” are pretty lousy. The writing on “Look Up At The Stars” is plain horrible. In the chorus, Shawn croons “But look up at the stars/They’re like pieces of art/Floating above the ground.” Wow, stars are pretty and they float above the ground because… guess what? They’re sparkly and in the sky! “Can’t Imagine” is a sort of first-take song Shawn recorded just to get the melody down. At least that’s an excuse for the crappy lyrics, but the melody isn’t particularly interesting either. If there is one bright spot on Wonder, it’s Shawn’s voice. Shawn’s vocal performances on this album are consistently strong. His falsetto is stronger than ever before, his riffs are executed with more vocal control, and his transitions between registers has become much smoother. It’s unfortunate that the music couldn’t keep up with the progress Shawn has shown vocally. Luckily, Wonder isn’t a career-ender. Shawn has already proven that he can make solid albums and hit songs. He just aimed a bit too high on this record and got lost in a sea of his influences rather than creating something that felt distinctly his. Shawn should be applauded for branching into new sounds and trying something different than his previous projects. If he learns anything from Wonder, it should be: 1) the “bigger” sound works best when he properly blends it into his acoustic pop roots (i.e. the title track) and 2) the slinky pseudo-R&B of “Monster” is where Shawn sounds at home, not on the overbearing synth-rock that he tried so hard to pull off on the rest of the album. 2020 was a mess for us all. Let’s try again next year, Shawn.

Key Tracks: “Wonder” | “Monster”

Score: 48

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