Shawn Mendes Rehashes the Right Way with “If I Can’t Have You”

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This is all streaming’s fault.

Think about it for a second: streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have made distracting audiences with increasingly anonymous tracks much easier. Artists aiming for the kind of stardom that they grew up on have to be savvier and quicker in this new pop paradigm. Ariana Grande dropped thank u, next barely six months after Sweetener. K-pop sensation BTS release their albums piecemeal over multiple EPs. The charts have been kind to both efforts, but it must be a punishing schedule, constantly creating music to satiate a fickle public while also staging world tours, pursuing side projects, and trying to get sleep at some point.

With that context, it might be easier to cut pop rocker Shawn Mendes some slack with “If I Can’t Have You”. This new single comes less than a year after Shawn Mendes, and on the heels of a huge arena tour and a Calvin Klein Underwear campaign that nearly broke Twitter a few months ago. Between all of that and perfecting his Bruce Springsteen cosplay, can you really blame Mendes for taking the “if it ain’t broke” approach? If you can, than his latest song will be a huge disappointment. “If I Can’t Have You” is a rather shameless retread of his 2016 hit “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back“, from the punchy, energetic chorus down to the funky-enough guitar chords beneath Mendes’ lower register in the verses. Minus some slight melodic shifts and the addition of a choir, the songs are pretty much carbon copies of each other.

And yet, as glaringly obvious as the similarities are, they don’t stop “If I Can’t Have You” from being a barnstormer of a pop track. If anything, it improves on its predecessor at nearly every level. The chorus is punchier, and kicking off the song with it is a stroke of genius. The guitar chords are funkier-enough, and paired with the sexier timbre of Mendes’ lower range, it gives the song an adult charge. There’s nothing new here lyrically – and he did the “missing you from afar” motif better with last year’s underrated “Lost in Japan” – but the hook is undeniable. Even the choir – a thoroughly exhausting pop cliché – works here, adding to the song’s infectious energy.

We don’t know whether “If I Can’t Have You” is meant to kick off a brand new album era, or just a trifle to keep pop playlists satiated while he’s off playing arenas around the world. Whatever the purpose, it’s an objectively good song that is about to become inescapable this summer. Is it reductive? Absolutely, but kudos to Shawn Mendes for mining his relatively short pop past for some unexpected gold.

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