Early in his brief “secret session” promotional set for iHeart Radio at Toronto’s Mod Club, the pop star Shawn Mendes presented Youth, one of the singles off his new self-titled third album. In recent interviews, Mendes, the pride of Pickering, Ont., and a teen star who normally plays Air Canada Centre for hometown gigs, opened up about his battles with anxiety. On stage, he addressed those issues with the song: “It’s hard to sleep at night, knowing what’s outside / Feeling hopeless, I need focus.”
In his declaration that “You can’t take my youth away,” Mendes is both defiant and naive – a heart-throb in existential crisis. His wavy-haired wholesomeness is reminiscent of a young John Mayer, the Grammy-winning and ever-evolving musician who happens to be a mentor of sorts to Mendes. (The cover art for Mendes’s second album Illuminate has him Mayer-like in a chair holding a Fender Stratocaster. Mayer should be sincerely flattered by the imitation.)
“Shawn has a good head on his shoulders,” Mayer wrote of Mendes in an essay for Time magazine earlier this year, “but he also has excellent shoulders.”
A good head and good shoulders – those are the things Mendes can hold onto for a long time. Youth? It can be taken away, and it undoubtedly will be.
But not any time soon. On Monday at the Mod Club, an intimate, packed room, Mendes played to a crowd of teenage girls who knew the words to his material, old and new. Mendes waved, gave the occasional thumbs-up sign and even passed water bottles to the overheated fans in front.
His music is lively (if evaporative) and pleasantly bland, more strummable than hummable. In jeans and a white T-shirt, Mendes cast a boy-next-door appearance. He often slung his various guitars behind his back, suspended out of the way in the manner of Bruce Springsteen. When he did bring the guitars in a position to play them, his mastery of the instrument was not apparent. For a cover of Frank Ocean’s Thinkin Bout You, Mendes took to a piano.
The Stitches singer possesses a perfectly serviceable tenor voice, which he augments with flights into the falsetto range. Perhaps because of his meteoric rise from Vine-posting star to arena-filling artist, Mendes hasn’t learned to connect with his audience from the stage. A flash of his teeth, an eagerness to please and a rhetorical question (“Toronto, how you feeling?”) seemed to be the limit of his skill set in that regard.
After his well-received performance, Mendes hustled himself to the Sheraton Centre Hotel to accept his songwriter of the year award at the annual SOCAN gala. The cab ride over must have been a crowded one, because the songs for which he was recognized (Mercy and There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back) were co-written with three other songwriters.
As for the assertion of There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back, one could argue that what might hold Mendes back is the lack of a signature hit and a definable style. At the Mod Club, the 19-year-old star revealed interest in light funk and urgently delivered rock, but stayed committed to innocuous pop.
His youth intact, Mendes rides high at the moment. What he seems to be missing, however, are deep roots.