Music fans can find it hard to decide which albums to stream and which to skip, considering the surplus of new music released. Each week, A&E columnist Sean Lee will compare two newly released albums and recommend which one students should listen to. First, Lee compares the originality of Shawn Mendes’ latest album “Illuminate” with that of Devendra Banhart’s “Ape in Pink Marble.”
Teenage pop star Shawn Mendes and Venezuelan folk artist Devendra Banhart are both slotted as singer-songwriters who released albums Friday, but the similarities stop there.
Banhart’s ninth studio album “Ape in Pink Marble” presents a songwriter confident in his artistic vision and willing to push his style into experimentation. Mendes’ second studio release “Illuminate,” presents a young but promisingly talented singer-songwriter who is still searching for his sound and a way to combine his various musical influences.
Coming off the mainstream hype of his Vines and his 2015 debut studio album “Handwritten,” Mendes uses his sophomore album to take the listener back to the acoustic pop heydey of the 2000s. But unlike John Mayer, Norah Jones and other giants of that era, Mendes is blatantly unoriginal, using the sounds of the 2000s to create hollow songs filled with nothing but a few catchy melodies.
On the album’s first track “Ruin,” Mendes manages to rip off the 6/8 drum beat of John Mayer’s 2005 song “Gravity,” the reverb-soaked guitar tone of Coldplay’s 2000 song “Shiver” and the “Do you” lyric structure of Jack Johnson’s 2005 song “Do You Remember.” At its core, the song delivers only a series of whiny lyrical clichés — “Darling, don’t you know I’m the only one?” — from a songwriter who could be a bit more subtle about his influences.
Likewise, “Patience” begins with a guitar riff that sounds like a leftover track from Johnson’s 2009 album “Sleep Through the Static,” offering a near-exact imitation of Johnson’s percussive strumming style. The piano tracks on “Mercy,” “Like This,” “Bad Reputation” and “Understand” sound as if John Legend’s instrumentals were given to a college student whose only stint with true love was the hookup he had last weekend.
Unlike Mendes’ album, which is filled with childish rehashes of the previous decades’ musical clichés, Banhart’s “Ape in Pink Marble” delivers a mature musical experience as mischievous as the Venezuelan singer himself. Unlike Mendes’ “Illuminate,” the album is a pure declaration of self as opposed to a cheap imitation of others.
Album opener “Middle Names” begins with theremin-produced white noise leading into a Latin-style acoustic guitar riff. Banhart laments, “I pretend when I look in your eyes,” an acknowledgement of the duality between appearance and actual self, presenting two layers of meaning in his songs as opposed to Mendes’ surface-level music about petty love.
And unlike Mendes who does not dare to veer beyond the acoustic pop genre in “Illuminate,” Banhart delves into disco beats for “Fig in Leather” where he absentmindedly asks his partner the question, “What do you think when I think of you?” only to conclude with the solipsistic realization that “you’re a lady” and her existence is only known through his relationship with her.
“Ape in Pink Marble” is not without its faults, as Banhart’s experimental instrumentation, particularly the R&B synth lines on “Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green” and the detuned guitar on “Linda,” alienates the listener slightly. However, the listener is reclaimed with the album’s closer “Celebration,” a mostly instrumental track which peacefully concludes the ambient listening experience. Mendes’ closing track “Understand” offers no conclusion to the album as a whole and could essentially be placed anywhere in the track list.
Whereas Mendes might sing “You got my heart but I can’t let you keep it, babe” to his third college girlfriend, Banhart sings “We’re so in love / Everywhere we go it’s walking underwater” to the love of his life.
Listen to “Ape in Pink Marble” for a mature and introspective musical journey. Listen to “Illuminate” for a survey course on where your favorite singer-songwriters were when they were 18 years old.