Shawn Mendes is the kind of pop star that not even poptimists care about, which is to say there’s nothing even remotely cool about him. He’s a pretty face tethered to an acoustic guitar, singing boring and occasionally satisfying pop-rock songs to young kids, but not the ones whose tastes people like to fetishize. He’s probably the closest thing we have to John Mayer, but has managed to catch zero run off from millennial nostalgic appreciation of Mayer, who was at least cool enough to be friends with Dave Chappelle.
None of that is doing anyone a disservice exactly. Shawn Mendes doesn’t need critics, and divorced from his obvious appeal as a heartthrob, he has so far been the sort of artist best enjoyed in passing. Yesterday he released two new singles—the first from his forthcoming third album—one of which, “In My Blood,” is an explicit Kings of Leon homage that offers nothing more than what you could get from the actual Kings of Leon songs that came out a decade ago (Jesus…), if that’s something you need in your life.
The other single, “Lost in Japan,” is something of a revelation. Mendes has found success within a pretty narrow aesthetic space—piano ballads, strummy acoustic stompers, arena rock—briefly nudging himself into more upbeat territory with “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” his hit from last year that was dance-y in the same way as Ed Sheeran tapping out a beat on the body of his guitar. But “Lost in Japan” introduces Mendes into a generation of white boys doing funk: the quicksilver grooves of early Phoenix, acoustic guitar rakes plucked from Justin Timberlake’s “Señorita” or a whole host of Robin Thicke records, audible bass guitar recently revived by Charlie Puth, even a piano intro that feels like an homage to Calvin Harris’ “Slide.”
So if this move by Mendes was unexpected, it was also maybe obvious enough. Nonetheless, “Lost in Japan”—which Mendes wrote along with Teddy Geiger, Scott Harris, Nate Mercereau, and frequent Post Malone collaborator Louis Bell—is just notably well-made pop music. In an age where radio long ago flattened the sound of pop into an easily consumable granola bar, “Lost in Japan” is refreshingly spacious. The arrangement is generous and surprising, like in the counterintuitive synth wobble that accents the bass, or the shakers in the background that pave the way for the acoustic guitars that give the song a nice mix of textures.
Mendes sings the song gracefully. He sells romantic tension (“we could cut it with a knife,” he says) and horny desperation, and sounds natural reaching into his falsetto as the song nears its conclusion. I have no idea why he sings the lyric “I’m a couple hundred miles from Japan,” but we can worry about that part later.