Shawn Mendes, "Wonder" (Island)
Perhaps the most shopworn but reliable pop star subject matter is "How did I get here?" followed by "Will they let me stay?" Megafame is lonely, leaving sensitive souls to ponder whether they're worthy of all the attention showered upon them. And megafame is distorting, making it hard to assert your identity when the public-facing nature of your work defines you long before you can define yourself.
From that resulting existential uncertainty, Shawn Mendes has made hay. His search — for himself, for love, for approbation, for confidence — has become the most vivid subject of his music. That was true on his self-titled 2018 album — his third full-length, which pulsed with theatrical dolor — and is even more so on his new album, a maze of occasionally catchy songs about self-doubt and moroseness interspersed with breathless pleas of love.
"You have a million different faces/ But they'll never understand," he sings at the beginning of the sweetly ponderous "Intro," the album opener, rendered with torch-song sorrow. That's followed by the stomping, stirring title track, the song with the most vigor here. He sounds most alive when in agony: "If I'm being real/ do I speak my truth or do I filter how I feel?"
"Wonder" is, overall, much less polished than Mendes' last album or the one prior, "Illuminate," released in 2016 and still his best work, which featured oodles of tightly zipped and anxious teen pop-rock.
The most famous male pop star of the past decade is burdened by a similar ambivalence about success. That would be Justin Bieber, who duets with Mendes on "Monster," a smoky, smooth mope-off, with the two singers performing a kind of gut check for their fans. "You put me on a pedestal and tell me I'm the best," Mendes sings, without a flicker of joy.
Four years and a couple of lifetimes older than Mendes, Bieber has long been a performer for whom superstardom itself is the raison d'être. His verse is more tart, more nostril-flare: "Lifting me up, lifting me up, and tearing me down, tearing me down." He sounds exasperated, over it. An older brother letting his little brother know just how cruel the world can be.
Jon Caramanica, New York Times