“If I tell the world that I’m just a normal human, are they going to stop coming to the shows and listening to the music?”
This is the dilemma at the core of the new, feature-length Netflix documentary on 22-year-old pop idol Shawn Mendes. And it’s a dilemma that no amount of tense soundtracking and moody shots of him raking his hands through his quiff can really make anybody take seriously.
The Canadian singer – who rose to fame in his mid-teens, modelling himself on Justin Bieber and singing covers on Vine – is a lovely lad. He’s got a pretty face and a pretty voice, which he honed to fit the TV talent show formula in his high school glee club: a few bedhead croaks to balance the emotive melisma and stadium-filling falsetto.
His first three albums (featuring hits “Life of the Party”, “Stitches” and “There’s Nothin’ Holding Me Back”) have all topped the US charts (making No 3 in the UK). He’s kind, funny and level-headed. His parents must be chuffed. The parents of his pop star girlfriend Camila Cabello (with whom he duetted on “Senorita”) must also be chuffed. I wouldn't wish him to be more weird or troubled. The kid has it sorted. But this does leave him with very little to work through in the music – so there’s little to draw the listener in.
Thematically, this fourth album deals – unremarkably – with the struggles of the lonely touring musician missing his girl. Pleasantly forgettable “Call My Friends” finds him moping around the airport, missing her to the tinkle of a piano, then considering getting drunk with his mates to the sound of a mild scuzzed-up synth, but still missing her. He sings of wanting “a vacation from my life” which, given the many millions he has already accrued, ought to be considerably more manageable for him than for the rest of us. “24 Hours” sees him looking forward to a snatched night in a hotel room between world tours. Twinkly R&B lullaby “Dream” finds him crooning: “Oh baby when I’m apart from you, all I have to do is dream-dream-dream about you.”
Despite the dearth of original melodies and ideas, there’s an obvious nod to the Everly Brothers’ 1958 “All I Have To Do Is Dream”. And throughout this record, Mendes’s savvy songwriting team are harking back to retro influences to suit the vintage ice cream parlour shades of the singer’s shirts. The acoustic plucking of “Song For No One” is Beatles-indebted. There are often echoes of The Beach Boys’ spaced out harmonies in layered vocals that allow multiple Mendeses to sigh their way down bittersweet semitones.
Mendes’s tweeniebopper audience may not be old enough to clock any of this. Perhaps it’s part of a cunning marketing strategy to put their parents at ease. Reassured by the artist’s cosy vintage values, they’ll be happy to shell out for the concert tickets and mountains of merch. It certainly doesn't matter what sniffy old critics like me think. Title single “Wonder” (a bombastic show closer of a serenade) has already soared to No 4 in the US and “Monster” (a duet with Justin Bieber) to No 1. It’s worth noting that they only made it to Nos 18 and 8 respectively in the UK. Clearly our kids are less smitten by the squeaky-clean cut of his jib. Which does give my cynical heart a wicked little kick of national pride.