But where Bieber, under Usher's tutelage, quickly got matched with R&B hitmakers to blend puppy-love tunes with of-the-moment rhythms, Mendes keeps his sound grassroots. Vine might be high-tech, but it's also so intimate that it can feel almost private, and Mendes is savvy to preserve that ambience. His music is as stripped-down as his torso often is on Vine (#shirtlessshawn is a popular tag), and he gets away with it, partly, on the strength of his rippled tenor and apparent musicianship.
The thrill for smitten admirers is that Mendes seems to be singing straight to their ears, either snuggling up for pillow talk or falling pleadingly to his knees, as generously cheek-boned crooners have done since the days of Rudy Vallee and Paul Anka (two other teen idols with Canadian backgrounds). The drawback for other listeners, particularly grown-up ones, is that there's not much else to hear -- compared, again, with the synthesized bubble and snap of, say, Bieber's "Baby" or "Somebody to Love."
But on the best of Handwritten, confident hooks and big dynamics make the syrup go down smoothly. That includes singles "Life of the Party" and "Stitches," the blue-eyed-soul workout "I Don't Even Know Your Name" (which vouches for Mendes' admiration for Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars) and the duet "Air" with Norwegian singer Astrid Smeplass, which includes a smattering of electro rhythms.
Shawn Mendes Billboard Shoot: Behind The Scenes
Elsewhere, on "Strings Attached" or the aptly named "A Little Too Much," the strutting and pouting invite criticism. Even Mendes' better mini-dramas have none of the lyrical twists and turns of Taylor Swift's (who invited him to open for her on tour this summer). And when Mendes and company go uptempo, they resort either to worn-out clap-along chants and whistling or, worse, a patter-singing style that's part rap, part ska and a whole lot the dregs of the sensitive-dude rock of Mendes' toddlerhood. Guest producer Martin Terefe has made some fine records, but that the Handwritten press release hails him as the brains behind Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" is a jumbo-size red flag.
It's a promising teen's first album, and it will satisfy the longings of the keepers of fan Tumblrs. So far, though, Mendes' music is not nearly as inventive as his strategies to publicize it.
This story originally appeared in the April 11 issue of Billboard.
Shawn Mendes - Handwritten Album Review