There are certain pressures that I can only assume are brought upon by being adorned the title of "Prince of Pop" at age 20, and by being the artist behind massive top 10 hits like "Stitches" when you're only 16 years old, "Treat You Better" when you're 17, and "There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back" when you're 18. There's an expectation that it's best to stick to whatever formula allowed you to perform this this well, and this consistently. Last year, Shawn Mendes made a point of not getting himself trapped in this cycle when he released his self-titled third album. It felt like a freeing moment for Mendes. His self-titled era presented a singer with a stronger grasp on his artistry who was releasing the songs that felt right in the moment, despite whatever prior expectations had been pushed onto his plate. Mendes' latest release "If I Can't Have You" elevates this artistic freedom to a level we haven't yet seen in his career.
Three seconds into the song and Mendes is jumping straight into the chorus, "I can't write one song that's not about you / Can't drink without thinking about you / Is it too late to tell you that / Everything means nothing if I can't have you." It's as if he's caught lightening in a bottle that will escape him if he doesn't act on it right away. There's a special and somewhat unexplainable quality that radiates from "If I Can't Have You." You aren't given the chance to deliberate and dissect the track to decide whether or not you like it–Mendes has already decided that for you and the answer is simply that you do, of course you do.
"If I Can't Have You" is fast-paced without being overwhelming. The uplifting soul of the choir that backs Mendes on the latter end of the track adds to the exploration of previously uncharted territory within the singer's growing discography. Within the verses, Mendes gives listeners time to catch little idiosyncrasies that they'd otherwise miss had the track been rushed over, like the way in which he alludes to Handwritten album cut "Strings" and Shawn Mendes track "Mutual" when he sings, "Is it wrong for me to not want half? / I want all of you, all the strings attached."
In a Beats 1 interview, Mendes mentioned that the track was heavily influenced by The 1975. The energy of "If I Can't Have You" encourages a never-ending vortex of dancing in the same way that The 1975's "This Must Be My Dream" does. These are the kinds of songs that you accidentally listen to for an hour or two straight, completely oblivious to how quickly you've danced and sang the time away.
Not having an album cycle immediately attached to the single's release adds to the freeing qualities of "If I Can't Have You." There's no underlying feeling that the singer may be unsure of how people will respond. The type of nervousness and uncertainty that might have accompanied a hyper-personal release like "In My Blood" is nowhere to be found. Teaming up with familiar collaborators Teddy Geiger, Scott Harris, Nate Mercereau, in addition to Mark Williams & Volta, Mendes created a song that he knew very early on was something special, and so he released it. No complicated weeks-long roll out, no dramatic alluding to the dropping of puzzle pieces that fit into a bigger picture of an album release, and no unnecessary or overthought explanations–just "If I Can't Have You," its warmth, and its infectious melody.
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