Like most of the songs on Handwritten, the title of 16-year-old Shawn Mendes‘ debut album (out April 14) is sentimental twice over, in the most knowing way. It points to the prevailing tone of these tracks — 16 of them, cutely — penned in the lexicon of mash notes and kiss-off missives slipped into school lockers, ready-made for inclusion on a mixtape at any given stage in the life cycle of a crush. It also denotes the retro arrangements, almost all founded on Mendes’ acoustic guitar licks and augmented by horns, string sections and live drums rather than synthetic studio beats.
On the surface, that’s ironic, since Mendes is to the six-second-video platform Vine what Justin Bieber was to YouTube — a teen from small-town Ontario who became the first singer to graduate from going viral on a new medium to real commercial success; like Bieber, he went on to get signed and climb both the charts (with “Life of the Party,” a top 10 Digital Songs hit last July) and social media rankings. In fact, Mendes’ first Vine hit was his cover of Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me.”
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.
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.