Like many others, Shawn Mendes followed the blueprint for success: post a couple covers up online and let the Internet work its magic. Hailing from the now extinct Vine, a platform that walked so Tik Tok could run, Mendes knew his audience right from the jump. In an instant, millions of people around the world could see the Canadian star playing his guitar in his bedroom; and although it was only for six seconds at a time, that was all he needed. Six seconds of a high note, six seconds of a familiar chorus. Six seconds to know that this kid was a serious star.
Four years on from its release, Mendes’ sophomore album Illuminate still shines as brightly as it ever did. With a successful debut already under his belt (Handwritten) and legions of Vine-followers-turned-fans, the anticipation for the follow-up album was massive. What was Shawn going to do next? At age 18, the star delivered arguably his most cohesive and moving body of work. Taking us right back to how it all began, Illuminate is just Mendes with his guitar. He’s honest, he’s heartbroken at times, he’s in love at other times and above it all, he’s growing.
It’s never been a secret who Mendes’ musical inspirations are, and you can see them clearly throughout the album. Classic singer-songwriters with a knack for woozy guitar and the ability to spin a love story like nobody else; stars like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Mendes’ main hero, John Mayer. But despite Mendes clearly taking some pages out of his mentor’s books, he’s put his own original spin on things. And who else better to do so? With his effortless talent for combining soft pop with heartfelt, bluesy instrumentals on the album, Mendes is Gen Z’s John Mayer.
Tracks like ‘Ruin’, ‘Lights On’ and ‘Understand’ encompass that the most; not only for their smooth-sounding nature but mature lyrical content. On ‘Ruin’, Mendes is admitting to his ex-flame who has moved on that while he still loves her, he doesn’t want to ruin her happiness. ‘Lights On’ pretty beautifully sees an 18-year-old boy talk about loving someone when the lights are both on and off and ‘Understand’ follows his inner turmoil of becoming someone he doesn’t recognise.
Rarely, the album’s best moments aren’t just the singles. While ‘Mercy’ and ‘Treat You Better’ are brilliant and ‘There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back’ feels a little out of place but still holds weight, they aren’t the only tracks to stand out. ‘Don’t Be A Fool’ is a fantastic ballad that everyone wants Mendes to sing to them, ‘No Promises’ sees the star, over a Sheeran-esque beat, tell his girlfriend to not ask for things he can’t fulfil, ‘Honest’ is a pure acoustic break up letter that sees, again, an 18-year-old boy be the bigger person; and the larger-than-life ‘Like This’ details Mendes simply falling in love.
‘Bad Reputation’ is a hidden gem, a song that presumably a fair few artists wish they would’ve written. There are only so many songs that sound exactly like a story feels, and this is one of them. Mendes delicately expresses his love for a girl who has a bad reputation and he paints a picture of high school, rumours and the nuances of it all with ease. “And all of my friends seen her naked or so the story goes, mistakes we all make them, but they won’t let it go,” he sings softly against a mellow beat. It’s the core of the album, a track that sees who Mendes really is. He might’ve followed an already-walked-path, but we’ve definitely never seen a star like this before.
Illuminate is aptly named. Not only did it quite literally shine a spotlight on Mendes and propel him into superstardom, but the album sizzles with an astonishing amount of light and vibrance. We might not ever get a Mendes like this again and that’s okay. There’ll be moments of Illuminate hidden in upcoming albums, moments where he sits down in his bedroom and plays his guitar just like he used to, and we’ll look forward to them. But we’ll always have this record to hold onto. At only 18, Mendes created something purely ethereal. Something aspiring artists can look to and go that’s it, that’s who I’m going to be. And that’s the blueprint.