Shawn Mendes has grown up in front of the world’s very eyes. After finding fame on YouTube and Vine in the early 2010s, the Ontario native got bigger and bigger with each song he released. He dominated Top 40 radio and streaming services, toured with Taylor Swift (and eventually sold out stadiums on his own), performed at Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday party and scored coveted Grammy nominations. From the outside looking in, it seemed that Mendes had it all — but there was one thing missing: Camila Cabello.
On his new album, Wonder (out Friday, December 4), the 22-year-old takes listeners through his journey to falling in love with his “Señorita” collaborator, 23, whom he started dating in 2019 after admittedly crushing on her for years. Along the way, he finds clarity in himself and in his relationship, looking past his struggles with anxiety and egotism toward a brighter future.
Wonder starts and ends in very similar ways: acoustic, bare-bones tracks featuring just Mendes’ smooth-as-butter vocals over a piano or a guitar. They have kindred themes too: the haunting opener, simply titled “Intro,” stresses the importance of being oneself, while the Justin Timberlake “Pair of Wings”-esque closer, “Can’t Imagine,” calls for self-love even in times of loneliness and heartbreak.
The 12 songs that bridge the gap between beginning and end are the singer-songwriter’s most sonically experimental and ambitious to date. Wonder feels like a cinematic experience rather than just another album on a shelf. It’s tangible evidence that Mendes was born to create music (despite some critics decrying his work — and new Netflix documentary, Shawn Mendes: In Wonder — as uninspired).
He toys around with sounds and concepts like never before. Sudden rhythm changes midway through “Song for No One” and “Look Up at the Stars” will surprise listeners, while an industrial and occasionally jarring instrumental fully encompasses “Call My Friends.” He even forays into R&B with a groovy ode to physical touch, “Teach Me How to Love,” and a melodic dedication to Cabello’s hometown of Miami, “305,” the latter of which fills the void that Bruno Mars’ absence from the music industry has left.
Mendes does not stray too far from his roots, however. Day-one fans will surely notice similarities between “Higher” and his 2014 stomper “Something Big,” while “Piece of You” has a hypnotizing bass line rivaling that of 2018’s “Particular Taste.”
In the end, it all comes back to Cabello. The title track finds Mendes wondering how far their relationship could go and hoping that the former Fifth Harmony member has the same strong feelings for him. “24 Hours” details how the coronavirus quarantine brought them closer, with lyrics like, “It’s a little soon / But I wanna come home to you.” The most extravagant and beautiful love song, though, comes in the form of “Always Been You.” With its grandiose chorus, the standout tackles Mendes’ “scars and insecurities” and honors the evolution of his romance with Cabello. “You’re the only one that my heart keeps coming back to,” he croons.
And with an album like Wonder, fans are sure to keep coming back too.
3.5 stars (out of 4)